Regular readers will know that one of the few constant features to be found hereabouts is the succession of bad puns introducing and punctuating whatever bits of writing I see fit to unload onto t'internet. Often, especially during a particularly boring film, I will find myself thinking nearly as much about what bad pun I am going to put in the title as I am about whatever Keira Knightley (or whoever) is up to on screen. So to turn up to a film and discover that the makers have already been diligently milking their own work for its bad-pun potential is wrong-footing, to say the least. I feel as though someone has shot my fox, or stolen my clothes, or whatever the most appropriate idiom is. If the film makers are going to start doing the bad puns themselves, where does that leave me? Do they want me to start actually making the films?
Nevertheless, here we are with Alfonso Gomez-Rejon's The Current War, a film about the race between rival companies attempting to bring electrical power to the USA and thus, you can see, a film with a play on words as its title. It goes further: 'Power changes everything!' declares the poster. Demarcation, that's the only answer, I tell you. Quite apart from this suspect promotional strategy, there does seem to be something slightly 'off' about this film – as a fact-based period drama with a first-rate cast, one would naturally expect to encounter it in a cinema around Christmas or early in the New Year, for it has clearly been made with one eye on the awards season. And yet here we are in the middle of summer and it is essentially serving as counter-programming to Disney's regal cat and the latest Fast and Furious movie. What, as they say, gives?
Well, my understanding is that this one was actually finished a couple of years ago, and was in the process of having a few re-edits made to it when scandal engulfed one of its producers, Harvey Weinstein. Putting out a film with Weinstein's name on it these days is such a bad business move that no-one even considers it, and so The Current War has been flogged on to another company and only now is seeing the light of day (if that's an appropriate metaphor for something which is mainly going to be viewed in very dark rooms). I'm not sure at what point Kazakh producer-director Timur Bekmambetov got involved (Bekmambetov is the visionary responsible for the precognitive loom of Wanted and the general barking lunacy of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter), but you can kind of sense his influence too, not least in the film's tendency towards lavish CGI. (Much of this goes to cover up the fact that, for a film about American history, a significant chunk of it was filmed elsewhere.) As if that wasn't a mixed enough bag, Martin Scorsese's name is on it as well (although that has popped up in many unexpected places recently).
The film is mostly set in the 1880s and early 1890s. The script does a very good job of establishing that we are only really on the cusp of a recognisably modern world as the film opens: the night is lit mostly by firelight and candles, vehicles and machinery are operated by steam or sheer muscle-power. No wonder the early pioneers of electricity were regarded and referred to as wizards and magicians. Unfortunately, the film does a rather less impressive job of establishing one of the key tensions in the story. On the one hand, we have the famous inventor and entrepreneur Thomas Edison (Cumbersome Bandersnatch), who is determined to bring light to the masses through a combination of his own incandescent light bulbs and the judicious application of direct current (DC). Set against him is the engineer and businessman George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon), who has a similar plan involving high-voltage alternating current (AC).
Now, you could argue, and I expect the film makers probably will, that the heart of the film is about the rivalry between the two men and the differences it reveals in their personalities – the fact it boils down to a difference in currents only really matters if you are trying to come up with a snappy, pun-some title for a movie on this topic. I don't know. I would have liked to have understood the science a bit more, simply because it is so central to the story, and also because the film is partially about how scientific and engineering progress is made.
The film progresses anyway. Westinghouse is initially interested in a possible alliance with Edison, but the great inventor snubs him and the scene is set for a mighty clash of wills – Edison has developed a complete and safe system he can provide, at some expense; Westinghouse has a product which is cobbled-together from various sources, considerably cheaper but also potentially lethal due to the high voltages involved. Much of the film revolves around Edison's attempts to smear Westinghouse by suggesting he is selling a dangerous product to the unsuspecting public. Edison also makes a big fuss about never using his considerable talents to invent something harmful to human life, which is of course setting up the irony of the fact he is largely responsible for the creation of the electric chair.
Lots of good material there for a story in and of itself, you might think: maybe even more than enough, given the film could probably use a little bit more scientific exposition about the technology involved. But the film goes even further: there is a subplot about Edison's personal life, and the illness of his wife (Tuppence Middleton). There is another one about the contribution made to all this by the Serbian inventor Nikola Tesla (Nicholas Hoult).
For all that he makes a significant contribution to the story (an employee of Edison and later a partner of Westinghouse), and despite Hoult's excellent performance, the inclusion of Tesla is probably the most glaring example of the film trying to do too much. We are probably overdue a proper Tesla bio-pic, given that he has already been mythologised by everyone from H.P. Lovecraft to Christopher Nolan, but this isn't it. There's enough Tesla in The Current War for it to feel obtrusive, but not enough to really satisfy.
The same can be said for many elements of the film, if we're honest. The story tries to cover so much that nothing is really treated with the depth and detail that it deserves, and the pace is seldom less than breathless – the film rattles along, rarely pausing for a reflective moment. This does mean it is never dull, but it also means it is a little exhausting to watch. After a while you just sit back and let the story whizz past in front of you.
This is quite disappointing, as in all other respects than the script and pacing, the film shows signs of excellence: it looks great, the direction is creative, and the performances are uniformly very strong. As noted, Hoult is on impressive, scene-stealing form, and there is a nice turn from Tom Holland (with a quite remarkably baroque hairstyle) as Edison's secretary. Shannon also makes an impression in what's not a particularly showy part. The film feels very much skewed in favour of Edison, though, which may or may not be connected to the fact that Bittythatch Chunderhound is one of the executive producers. He is, I should say, as good as usual, but on the other hand he is also playing pretty much the same character that he does in almost every film he makes: acerbic, snarky, very, very clever, not exactly gifted when it comes to showing affection to others... there's no doubting his charisma, but he does seem in danger of becoming a movie star rather than the great actor he's always been up to this point.
It is not a major issue, certainly when compared to the problems with The Current War's script and story. Even so, this is an interesting and engaging movie which we both enjoyed (Olinka needed some persuasion, but was glad she agreed to come along in the end). It's by no means completely satisfying, but – quite appropriately – it does shed some light on an interesting period of history, and it's nice to find a film with such aspirations to ambition and intelligence doing the rounds at this time of year.