TORONTO, Canada, Sept 11, (Agencies): Oscar nominees Benedict Cumberbatch and Michael Shannon electrified audiences at the Toronto Film Festival Sunday with their portrayals of Thomas Edison and his rival in the race for marketable electricity, George Westinghouse.
“The Current War” was directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, who described Edison as someone “who came from a world of spontaneous invention without really seeing the purpose for it at first, and created a purpose for something”.
In contrast, he said, “Westinghouse could immediately contextualize something and see how it could be greater for society”.
“The rivalry between them was interesting”, Gomez-Rejon said, because of “what it said about the world and how we can, through invention and technology, leave it better than how we found it”.
Edison and his team conducted the first incandescent lightbulb tests in 1879 and a few years later began broad distribution of electricity using a direct current.
Westinghouse, whose interests in gas distribution and telephone switching led him to look into electrical power distribution, saw that Edison’s use of low-voltage DC had a limited range.
After reading about European AC systems, he set out to develop and market AC power systems that could distribute electricity over long distances to dispersed US populations.
He was also able to achieve greater economies of scale with the use of centralized power generation, allowing him to sell electricity at cheaper rates.
The movie also stars Nicholas Hoult as inventor and futurist Nikola Tesla.
Cumberbatch said he knew very little about Edison before taking on the role. “I really was in the dark”, he quipped.
His portrayal of the American icon is alternately sympathetic, and not.
Various Edison biographies, he noted, offer a “varied understanding and appreciation of the man”.
Cumberbatch’s own interpretation of him, he said, is that of “a man who had achieved a great deal from humble beginnings, who felt assailed in the world. I don’t think that ever left him”.
Edison, he said, was “someone who chose really not to hear repeated truth … and that corrupted him”.
“It’s an ugly truth, but it’s formed out of something that’s very human. I think there’s some degree of salvation in the sense that he (eventually) admitted that he was wrong”.
To prepare for the role, Cumberbatch said he read an extract from Edison’s diary in which the inventor talked frankly about his dreams, “his diet and bowel movements, or lack thereof”, literature, “his fantasy world” and how he once “got into a mess in New York because he asked a conductor on a tram which stop to get off at and he couldn’t hear him”.
Edison had suffered from partial hearing loss since childhood.
“He was very funny, very self-deprecating”, Cumberbatch commented.
Shannon had a wholly different challenge in preparing for the role because Westinghouse destroyed all his personal papers before his death, wanting posterity to judge him only for his deeds.
“My goal wasn’t to try and create an exact replication of George Westinghouse — it’s just not possible — so I more considered his point of view, his way of being in the world and dealing with people”, said Shannon.
“Nobody’s gonna come along and say you messed that up, because nobody knows”.
Before the start of filming, Gomez-Rejon had found a rare and very old leather-bound book about Westinghouse, and shared it with him.
“It was almost a tribute to George Westinghouse. It was written by someone who had a great deal of respect for him, talked about what a great man he was and all of his accomplishments”, Shannon recalled.
“By the time I finished reading it, it really done a number on me, so that was the foundation of my work on the film”, he said.
Directing his first feature after breaking through with “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl”, Gomez-Rejon seems wary of turning this period drama into a science lecture or a stuffy prestige project, and thus errs on the side of flashy modern technique. Ironically, this flattens the film into a much duller creature than it might have been had he embraced technical geekery and 19th century rhythms, its style calling attention only to itself. At one point very early on, Edison, his wife and children load into a carriage after a meeting with J.P. Morgan in the White House, and they’re shot facing each other with a wide fisheye lens. Is this supposed to indicate a distance between the inventor and his family? The disorientation of a meeting with such powerful men? An active mind on the brink of euphoric discovery? Not really — it seems to signify nothing other than the fact that fish-eye lenses look cool. And looking cool appears to be “The Current War’s” primary aesthetic directive.
The film alternates between Edison, who has already invented the light bulb and the phonograph, in Menlo Park, and Westinghouse, inventor of the locomotive air brake, in Pittsburgh. Played by Cumberbatch with a suave bearing and an American accent that both seem modeled on Indiana Jones, Edison is brash, arrogant, and self-regarding, though not without reason. Michael Shannon is heavily mutton-chopped and mustachioed as Westinghouse, dialing down his intrinsic weirdness to play a man who was every bit as practical, respectful and team-oriented as Edison was a lone-wolf visionary. More important than their divergent personalities, however, is the fact that Edison favors the direct current, and lights up a square mile of Manhattan to prove his system’s potential. Westinghouse prefers the alternating current, and demonstrates his method’s versatility by providing light to Great Barrington, Mass, from a mile away.
There’s an interesting Real America vs Coastal Elites metaphor in here somewhere, with the retiring Westinghouse providing cheaper power to a small town, and the mediagenic Edison’s prestige system making a splash in New York. But the film doesn’t really have time to dig into deeper themes or nudge us to appreciate the difficulty of implementing a utility we largely take for granted — for these men, power is simply power, and they each race to gobble up exclusive contracts with one city after another.
Michael Mitnick’s script contains a number of clever ideas, and it starts to get into a groove when it details the escalating PR battles between the two entrepreneurs. Edison, shown to be quite loving to his children and wife (Tuppence Middleton), nonetheless has no compunctions about slinging mud on Westinghouse in the press, issuing concern-troll soundbites about the danger of his system and suggesting that his competitor’s surname should supply the verb for electrocution — which, we’re reminded, was a word that had yet to be coined.
Westinghouse has a more aggressively supportive spouse in Marguerite (Katherine Waterston), and he strives to avoid character assassination or dirty tricks. But when Edison contrives to have Westinghouse’s name attached to an invention that neither man supports, the electric chair, Westinghouse shows his underhand.
Theoretically, the film should have a can’t-miss x-factor in every hipster’s favorite electrical engineer, Nikola Tesla. Played by Nicholas Hoult, the flamboyant Serbian genius first arrives in the US to work for Edison, who underestimates his ideas, then makes a consequential defection to Westinghouse. Telsa’s story might actually have been more appropriate for Gomez-Rejon’s impressionistic style, but his abstract personality is an awkward fit here.
Shot from every conceivable vantage point, Jan Roelfs’ production design is extensively detailed, and cinematographer Chung-Hoon Chung skillfully pulls off every Dutch angle, dolly shot and lens flare he’s asked to provide. But unlike the technologies the film details, so little of “The Current War’s” hustle and bustle serves much of a concrete purpose. Late in the film, Edison recalls the moment when, after untold months of failure, he finally perfected the 13-hour light bulb. His previous attempts had sometimes worked for a few minutes, but he had to stand back in awe as this bulb kept shining for hour after hour, realizing he had finally cracked it. “The Current War” feels like one of those earlier experiments — temporary flash providing too little illumination.