The Current War (M)
This is one of those movies where the behind-the-scenes story is at least as interesting as the film itself. The Current War was originally going to be released by the Weinstein Company. It premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in 2017 in a version recut by Harvey Weinstein against director Alfonso (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl) Gomez-Rejon's wishes.
The Weinstein Company went bankrupt in the wake of the sexual misconduct allegations made against Weinstein and it looked like the movie might never be released.
But Gomez-Rejon's mentor Martin Scorsese (The Departed) was a producer on The Current War and helped the director get his cut of the film released - with changes including reshoots (some of them at Scorsese's suggestion), a new score and re-editing. This version - released by another company - premiered overseas last year and is now showing in Australia.
The Current War - despite a title that sounds a bit like a documentary -tells the story of the battle between inventor Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) and industrialist George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon) over whose electricity system will prevail: Edison's direct current or Westinghouse's alternating current.
The film eventually focuses on whether AC or DC will power the Chicago World's Fair in 1893, but it's clear the stakes are much higher. Which system will provide electricity for the US and from there, the world?
Screenwriter Michael (Vinyl) Mitnik and Gomez-Rejon do a pretty good job of explaining the scientific and technical concepts and the differences between the systems. DC, we're told, works over short distances but AC is cheaper, more efficient and further reaching.
But it's the characters and their actions that provide much of the interest.
Edison is portrayed as a man whose mind is constantly ticking with ideas, obsessed with his work to the extent he neglects his wife and children. has a prickly sense of ownership but admits the process of invention is usually accumulative, with no one parent. This doesn't stop him from patenting devices he's improved, like the electric light bulb, and wanting to prevail.
Westinghouse is less hands-on, delegating most of the actual development to others in his employ, and more focused on the business side than Edision, but equally dedicated to winning.
The rivalry plays out in the press and in the public sphere. Edison claims AC is dangerous and, despite a stated unwillingness to get involved in projects that would hurt people - like munitions - he demonstrates the "danger" of alternating current by electrocuting, or "Westinghousing" as he calls it, a series of animals.
Edison also secretly becomes involved in the development of the electric chair. It will be powered, of course, by AC. All this is to embed the idea his rival's system is dangerous (the inference being that his isn't). Westinghouse, though initially more honourable, eventually shows he is not above dirty doings in this "war". Neither Edison nor Westinghouse is presented as one-dimensional: both are depicted as, in general, good employers as well as faithful family men.
There's also a third player, the visionary but naive Serbian immigrant Nicola Tesla (Nicholas Hoult), who initially works for Edison but switches allegiances to Westinghouse. Tesla's character, although crucial, sometimes feels less well developed than the others.
It's a fine cast - also including Tom Holland as Samuel Insull, Edison's devoted assistant and sometime conscience - and the period look and feel is effective.
Sometimes it feels like the filmmakers have tried to squeeze too much into the running time. And occasionally a little more clarity wouldn't have hurt, including in the written postscript - although some of its ironies are delicious.
The Current War isn't perfect, as a movie or as history, but it's good to see there is still room in Hollywood for intelligent, enjoyable and well-made movies as well as big-budget blockbusters. May there be many more.