Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (November 26, 2020)
Ever wonder how we wound up with the electrical system we have? Nah, me neither, but 2019’s The Current War: Director’s Cut tells us anyway.
Set in the 1880s, famed inventor Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) pushes for the adoption of “direct current” as the best way to power the nation. With plans to install this system in Manhattan, it looks like Edison will triumph yet again.
However, businessman George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon) becomes a fly in the ointment, as along with inventor Nikola Tesla (Nicholas Hoult), they propose “alternating current” instead. This sets off a battle to determine which plan will succeed.
Should we view The Current War: Director’s Cut as the worst movie title of the year? Yeah, probably.
Let’s look at the basic element: The Current War. Given that the film looks at electricity, it becomes a clever moniker, but it makes potential viewers think the flick will be about the conflict in Afghanistan or a similar subject, not the science-based tale it delivers.
And what’s with that Director’s Cut part? That just seems confusing, as it implies the film ran theatrically under a prior version.
It didn’t. A prior edition showed at film festivals, but only Director’s Cut ever saw multiplexes in the US, so this little tease made no sense to prospective viewers.
Unsurprisingly, War found little audience theatrically, as it brought in a mere $6 million in the US and $12 million total worldwide. I can’t imagine that terrible title helped, and I remember that I wondered when the “non-Director’s Cut” of War ran.
As discussed in this disc’s supplements, filmmaker Alfonso Gomez-Rejon had a personal reason for the “Director’s Cut” title, as studio interference made him possessive. Still, the movie’s name had to confuse audiences.
Not that I suspect War would’ve been a blockbuster anyway, though you’d think a film with “name” actors like Cumberbatch, Shannon, Hoult and Tom Holland could scare up more than $12 million. Heck, the notion of Spider-Man and Doctor Strange paired together should be worth more than that!
Still, the subject matter doesn’t scream “huge hit”, even with that star power. Not that director Gomez-Rejon doesn’t work overtime to present War as a thriller.
While the subject matter implies a subdued, fairly intellectual look at the science and the politics, War pushes from the very start to bring us an urgent tale. Rather than a typical history lesson, we get an over-amped drama that feels like an odd match for the material at hand.
Perhaps Gomez-Rejon felt that this style would more likely attract an audience than a standard format, but given those anemic box office receipts, he appears to have been wrong. Again, this doesn’t mean a more traditional format would’ve earned superior ticket sales, but it couldn’t have done much worse.
And a less contrived take on the tale would likely deliver a stronger movie. War works so hard to convince us of its stunning drama that it inadvertently goes in the other direction and undercuts its potential.
War does everything it can to turn an intellectual tale into an emotional one, without much balance. I get that Gomez-Rejon wanted to give the story more of a dramatic feel and less of a dry one, but this approach feels misguided.
From an oft-moving camera to a pounding score to an emphasis on raw emotions, War just feels wrong most of the time. If Gomez-Rejon had balanced emotion with fact more evenly, the movie might’ve fared better, but as it stands, the style just doesn’t match the narrative well.
The actors seem fine, though Cumberbatch still can’t pull of a believable American accent. Still, he and the others feel acceptable in their underwritten parts.
If only they worked in service of a more compelling movie. A more even hand would’ve made War a stronger film instead of this overbaked contrivance.