My father was an usher at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, titled A Century of Progress. Somehow he managed to collect four unused souvenir tickets to the 1893 Columbian Exposition, also in Chicago. I treasure these along with a small collection of Chicago books and memorabilia. There are numerous buildings in Chicago from that period that are seemingly frozen in time, lovingly preserving the heavy and ornate woodwork and soaring ceilings, staircases and marble lobbies of the late 1800s. A Chicago architectural tour is a must if you are similarly intrigued. Sadly, not much remains of the original fairgrounds, which burned down within six months of the expo’s end. There are only a few remaining structures, most notably The Museum of Science and Industry (recently renamed for a major donor, but forget that!), on the south lakeshore.
So it’s easy to imagine that this movie has been on my must-see list for some time. The Victorian era, including such notables as H.G. Wells, with his time machine, and Jules Verne’s many imaginative literary creations and journeys became the catalyst that inspired the SteamPunk genre’s emergence in the 1970s. As is usually the case, art imitates life, and the late nineteenth century was a time of great wonder, as the post Civil War Industrial Revolution gave rise to exploding populations, the conquest of undiscovered countries and the steam-driven mechanization of just about everything.
Known as “The White City” the Columbian Exposition is something of an American icon, a battleground where architects like Daniel Burnham, a serial killer, and titans of industry, most notably George Westinghouse, Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison, were competing to dominate their fields, their victims and their market share respectively. Edison was a cutthroat, hard working public relations master. He and Tesla were both undoubtedly sociopaths. And lurking in the shadows of the World’s Fair was a full-fledged psychopath named Dr. H. H. Holmes, subject of the book Devil in the White City by Erik Larson. Hulu has a film of that book in development, starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Dr. Holmes.
The Current War pits Westinghouse (Michael Shannon) against Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) as the titans behind the emergence of electricity’s widespread use. Edison emphatically states to his young secretary Samuel Insull (Tom Holand) that whoever wins this race rules the world, or something to that effect. His many bellicose statements capture the Steve Jobs-like tyrant nature and obsessive zeal that drive his Menlo Park invention gristmill. There are elements of Jeff Bezos in his Amazon-like hard-driving expectations of staff. His casual abuse of Nikola Tesla leads to the eventual victory by Westinghouse in securing the White City contract.
Edison’s dangerously competitive nature eventually leaves him without a contract when the World’s Fair project is decided. Other than the illumination of part of Manhattan, this is the most spectacular use of the new technology as of 1893, and with 30 million visitors from all over the world, the best marketing opportunity for the new electric light. Try to imagine the impact of night turning into day in the midst of a mostly dark, candle and gas illuminated world!
I have a deep interest in that period of our country’s history. Nikola Tesla, long before Elon Musk co-opted his name for an electric vehicle, was an eccentric genius, a mysterious inventor responsible for the alternating current that comes out of your electric sockets today. Had he been more conventional in his methods and a better businessman, there is some evidence that he was mastering the long distance wireless transmission of current, which would change, well, everything. For a long time he was more or less lost to history.
When I first heard that Cumberbatch stars in this film, I assumed he would appear in the role of Tesla. Instead he plays Edison, and Nicholas Hoult plays the Serbian-American genius. Cumberbatch looks much younger than Edison’s actual 46 years of age in 1893.
Oddly, the film premiered at several film festivals in 2017 and was sold to another production company in the midst of the Harvey Weinstein debacle until a re-edit resulted in this Director’s Cut. Does that spell trouble? I guess theatergoers who see this version will never know. But while it was a fascinating recounting of a pivotal period in our history, it lacked the action, suspense and thrills expected of most movies these days. The Current War seems more like a movie that could be shown in high school or college as an educational film than a commercial release.
It seems as if Tesla could have been the star of the show to bring a bit of electric “Magic” to the story and serve as a bridge between Westinghouse and Edison, since Tesla is the real story here. His eccentricity and genius have been the subject of other films, (The Prestige, Tesla and many others) so a novel storyline was pursued for The Current War by following his second, much more understanding employer/partner, Westinghouse. Tesla’s penchant for fully developing inventions in his mind before ever attempting to build them was diametrically opposed to Edison’s slavish trial and error methods. In his famous quote, he claims, “I have not failed, I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
A minor point of interest: four actors in The Current War have had roles in recent superhero films. Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange, Holland as Spiderman, Hoult as Beast in Deadpool 2 and X-Men films and Michael Shannon as Zod in Man of Steel.
The film also attempts to debunk the legendary sadistic nature with which Edison has been credited, most often through the now disproven electrocution of Topsy the circus elephant from Coney Island. In fact, the event actually happened, but Edison had nothing to do with it, and it was ten years later than the period depicted here. However, in his efforts to prove that DC current was safer than AC, the “Wizard of Menlo Park” did electrocute numerous animals, mostly dogs in order to find a more humane means of euthanizing animals. In The Current War, the invention of the electric chair and subsequent death of murderer William Kemmler was dramatically carried out with an overly dramatic simultaneous flipping of the switches at the White City opening and the execution in New York. The events were actually separated by three years. Ah, poetic license in filmmaking.
Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon nicely captured the rich and dark feel of the late nineteenth century in this, his first feature film. But there is no hurry to see this in a theater unless you’re just really excited by the subject.
The Current War: Director’s Cut (2017) runs 1 hour 58 minutes and is rated PG-13.
Should I see this movie?