Story about illumination sheds little light

In The Current War, businessman and engineer George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon, far left) and inventor Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch, left) are two powerful men with competing visions.
In The Current War, businessman and engineer George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon, far left) and inventor Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch, left) are two powerful men with competing visions. PHOTO: GOLDEN VILLAGE

As they say, this is one story that is hard to believe is not made up: There are two powerful men, each with a vision, but only one may claim victory and, in doing so, shape the world in his image.

Since AC (alternating current) has become the worldwide standard, we know Westinghouse beat Edison, but how he does it makes for fascinating reading.

And reading is where one might get the most enlightenment and entertainment for now, because this A-list treatment provides neither.

The overstuffed story cranks up the juicier aspects of the conflict - at one point, it involves the staged electrocutions of a horse, an elephant and a convict - but fails in every other respect, especially coherence.

It covers too big a chunk of time and has too many characters, changes in context and interactions that touch on everything - Edison's ego and love for his family, city infrastructure, the use of fear and uncertainty in public relations - and nothing in particular.

Cumberbatch and Shannon waste their time in this high-brow re-enactment, directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, who helmed the woefully under-appreciated romance-comedy Me And Earl And The Dying Girl (2015).

Fortunately, he understands that this is also a story about illumination, about a time when gaslights were to give way to the light bulb.

  • REVIEW / BIOGRAPHY

  • THE CURRENT WAR (PG)

    107 minutes/Opens today/2 Stars

    The story: Famed inventor Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) has a dream - to move the world into the electrical age with his new thing, the light bulb, powered by direct current (DC) electricity from his generators. Businessman and engineer George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon) also wants to electrify the nation, but with his competing standard, alternating current (AC). Enter Serbian immigrant Nikola Tesla (Nicholas Hoult), whose genius will affect the outcome of the competition.

South Korean cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon, known for his lush images in Park Chan-wook's psychological and erotically charged The Handmaiden (2016) and Stoker (2013), fills frames with a dewy, golden softness that melts into an inky darkness.

Hoult, as Tesla, struggles to find the desperation and frustration the man must have felt at the exploitation of his work. Tesla vanishes from the story, as do other characters, without explanation.

In an account about the banishment of darkness, this two-hander about hard-nosed Americans seeking engineering glory sheds precious little light.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 17, 2019, with the headline 'Story about illumination sheds little light'. Print Edition | Subscribe