by Joshua Ray on Oct 24, 2019

The Current War, a cinematic depiction of the battle for electrical supremacy in the United States at the dawn of the 20th century, surely represents massive heartbreak for director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon. After helming the perfectly serviceable horror remake of The Town That Dreaded Sundown in 2014, he was the talk of the town at 2015’s Sundance Film Festival. His Me and Earl and the Dying Girl was one of the fest’s major acquisitions, and industry buzz leading up to its summer release that year positioned it as a likely indie breakout. It tanked, barely making back its budget, let alone its distributor’s outsized investment. Still, the stylish (and mawkish) Earl – along with Gomez-Rejon’s associations with respected Hollywood figures like Martin Scorsese and Ryan Murphy – succeeded in pushing the director up the shortlist of hot new talent.

In comes The Weinstein Company, who hired Gomez-Rejon to develop and direct The Current War. The road to a finished product was fraught with strife – Harvey “Scissorhands” Weinstein would end up cutting it to shreds behind the director’s back, as he was often prone to do. It was all for naught. The Weinsteins’ plans for Oscar glory fizzled on the spot during The Current War's premiere at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival. Any buzz for the film or its performers burned out as quickly as one of George Westinghouse’s (Michael Shannon, here) 2-hour light bulbs. Critics hated it. One month later, Harvey Weinstein was outed as (allegedly) even more deplorable in his personal interactions than he was in his notorious professional ones. The Weinstein Company would soon shutter its doors forever, leaving The Current War on the proverbial shelf indefinitely.

One of the director’s mentors, Scorsese, has wielded his influence – by way of a claim on the film's final cut in his role as executive producer – to bring a “director’s cut” version to theaters through a different distributor, over two years after its festival premiere. According to reports, the film's refreshed form is tighter, more propulsive, and contains more exposition to better orient viewers in the technology with which its story is concerned. This reviewer has only seen the this resurrected version, but apparently, no matter which way its sliced, the prevailing interest in Gomez-Rejon’s third feature will always be as a footnote in the story of the Weinsteins. Even after all the retooling and reshooting, it is the director’s least successful film. A historical epic as bloated as it is uninteresting, The Current War: Director’s Cut resembles expensive reenactments from a hypothetical History Channel docuseries about the war of alternating current vs. direct current (what fun!). Yet this recreation is so condensed that it only contains surface-level evaluations of its subjects’ behaviors and motivations.

Ironically, the story surrounding the long-delayed project is far more compelling than the vaguely similar battle of wits and wills between Westinghouse, Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch), and Nikolai Tesla (Nicholas Hoult) as depicted in the film. It’s as if Gomez-Rajon and writer Michael Mitnick needed to first make the film to create a fulsome realization of its content. Indeed, doing so and being allowed subsequent minor reshoots has allowed the director to go back to the drawing board with new insight into the ways powerful men operate in business. In a meta-acknowledgement of the struggles with Weinstein behind-the-scenes, the director shoehorns in a small scene of Tesla’s work and patents stolen out from under him by a greedy investor, who, in one of the many winkingly knowing moments throughout, says, “There will never be another product with your name on it ever again.”

Even when it lacks the heavy hand behind this particular moment, the script nevertheless goes through the motions of barrelling from event to event as if dutifully crossing off items on a War of Currents timeline. In between are approximations of the obsession with innovation from far better films: Francis Ford Coppola’s Tucker: The Man and His Dream (1988); Scorsese’s Howard Hughes biopic, The Aviator (2004); and even Orson Welles’ great double-feature body-blow to the American dream-as-toxicity, Citizen Kane (1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942).

To invite even tenuous comparisons of Gomez-Rejon’s ostentatious brand of filmmaking to Scorsese would seem to be complementary, but the opportunity to salute his main guru – years-spanning narrative of men battling for power and all – has resulted in a finished product that is stiflingly over-directed. The influence is immediately obvious, and a bigger budget, coupled with the period piece material, has empowered the director to deploy every cinematic trick he’s gleaned from the master’s work: split-focus diopter, split screens, Eisensteinian montage, Dutch angles, cameras careening above and around groups of characters, etc. It’s an impressive display of skill, but while Gomez-Rejon knows how to play all the notes, he’s not quite skilled enough to synthesize them into the sort of cinematic orchestral arrangements one expects from his mentor.

The film’s coda, which features scenes of Edison and his kinetoscope and kinetograph, points to his invention of the technology of motion pictures. While that credit escapes without being subjected to the same scrutiny as Edison’s involvement with electricity, it seems to have been included to justify the cinematic flexing, dramatizing the innovation of the medium that was (at least partially) created by its subject. Unfortunately, it’s just another point in the disconnected circuit that is The Current War.

Rating: C