What is the purpose of a director’s cut? A director’s cut of a film is meant to show the director’s true vision. It’s usually released on home video well after a film’s initial run in theaters, but sometimes the director’s cut manages to make it to theaters, such as Midsommar earlier this year. Usually when a director’s cut of a movie is available, it’s a sign that the original movie was a product of studio meddling with key scenes left on the cutting room floor. Some movies like Blade Runner benefit from a director’s cut. Other movies don’t need one.
And then there’s The Current War, a film that has had a rough journey getting to theaters in the first place. The original cut of the film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival back in 2017, where it was met with negative reviews (this cut currently holds a 33% on Rotten Tomatoes). The film was a victim of the now infamous Harvey Weinstein scandal and was shelved following The Weinstein Company’s bankruptcy. The movie was then picked up by Lantern Entertainment and 101 Studios. Executive producer Martin Scorsese was then convinced by director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon to do re-shoots and trim ten minutes off of the final cut they had shown at TIFF.
But after all that, was The Current War really worth the trouble?
Inspired by true events, The Current War follows the titular battle between Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon). Edison’s method of direct current (DC) is limited in range and more expensive, while Westinghouse’s alternating current (AC) works over long distances at a fraction of the cost. The two driven men battle with each other over publicity and the rights to power all of America. Nikola Tesla (Nicholas Hoult) soon enters the picture siding with Edison, only to be cast aside by Edison’s growing ego. Aided by his right hand man Samuel Insull (Tom Holland), Edison battles Westinghouse in a bid to light up the Chicago World’s Fair.
Unfortunately for the film, the troubled production is evident in the opening, which begins with Thomas Edison standing in a field of lit light bulbs, eagerly awaiting the checks of investors. In a more substantial film that dives deeper into these brilliant minds, this would be the end of the first act following a glimpse into Edison’s life. Instead, the entire movie feels rushed and is more focused on trying to cram as much information as possible into the 107 minute run time.
The most compelling part of the film was Edison’s attempt to publicly sabotage Westinghouse’s reputation. In secret, Edison invents the electric chair using the AC method made famous by Westinghouse. It comes back to bite Edison in the butt, however, so I guess Westinghouse got the last laugh there. This part backfires on the viewers by making it briefly about the first man to be executed by the chair, turning this into a social justice movie for longer than it needed to be.
Alfonso Gomez-Rejon directs this as his follow up to the Sundance hit Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, and while most of the shots feel inspired and impressive, the editing was a mixed bag (again, probably the result of its cursed production). The acting, meanwhile, is good across the board, but nothing all that great. Hoult and Holland aren’t given that much to do, while Shannon and Cumberbatch seem to be on autopilot. They’re not bad, but it doesn’t feel like a lot of effort was put in. I’ve seen Cumberbatch do this “tortured genius” role for a while now and it’s starting to become a bit stale.
It’s a shame that this movie got butchered by Weinstein the way it did. There’s a good story that’s just dying to come out and dazzle us, but the whole thing feels bland. I have not seen the original cut that premiered in Toronto two years ago, but I can’t imagine how this is an improvement.
So to make a long story short, The Current War was not saved by a director’s cut. As it stands in its current state, it’s a bland script that tries so hard to be salvaged by the performances of the two leading men. Some of the cinematography was impressive, but what good is it if the editing isn’t competent? Whether it’s on a television screen or the silver screen, I hope this story gets the good treatment it deserves. Edison and Westinghouse deserve better than this forgettable Oscar grab.