Two years ago at the Toronto International Film Festival, a movie about Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse, Nikola Tesla and, for a climax, the dazzling illumination of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, failed utterly to ignite the movie world.
En route to its premiere, “The Current War” met with more than the usual amount of uber-meddling from distributor Harvey Weinstein of The Weinstein Company. A few weeks after the Toronto festival, The New York Times published the first history-making story by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey detailing a gathering storm of sexual assault and serial harassment allegations against Weinstein. Suddenly, that was that. The unreleased “Current War,” meantime, went into turnaround and became an asterisk.
Now there’s a director’s cut of “The Current War,” featuring newly shot footage, various cuts, reorderings and additions, a new musical score and a 10-minutes-shorter running time. This one remains a bit of a mess, but a pretty interesting one.
The fictionalized history covered by “The Current War” takes place in the last two decades of the 19th century. Benedict Cumberbatch stews and furrows his way through the role of the perpetually distracted Edison, in a performance more concerned with interior tension than audience love. Unkempt, increasingly unscrupulous in his competitive tactics, Edison also lives in the shadow of personal tragedy; Tuppence Middleton portrays his wife in a few quick early scenes.
With the sometime assistance of the brilliant Serbian-born Tesla (Nicholas Hoult), Edison scores a conspicuous early victory in the electrical race by lighting up a good chunk of New York City with his direct current. His wily but fair-minded competitor is Westinghouse (Michael Shannon, reminding the world he can play subtle and intriguing men of honorable character), boasting the more efficient AC system. As “The Current War” proceeds, Westinghouse’s company powers more and more of the outlying nation, away from Manhattan’s bright lights. The third act concerns who will win the contract to illuminate the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.
The director’s cut foregrounds the supporting character of Tesla, if only to explain his relationships to Edison and Westinghouse. Much-loved “Spider-Man” headliner Tom Holland plays another secondary character, Edison’s devoted assistant Samuel Insull. He comes into prominence late in the game.
The movie’s cool to the touch, dealing with characters that might be considered chilly or remote, but director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (“Me and Earl and the Dying Girl”) sweats like crazy to visually energize the story. Gomez-Rejon and cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung spin the camera ’round here a twirling overhead zoom, there a nostril-proximity fish-eye close-up. It’s strenuous, though the settings and production designs shine. Digital effects bring the Chicago World’s Fair to life, tantalizing with glimpses of a long-vanished, blindingly bright revolution in technology.