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'The Current War' review:  Electricity saga is historically illuminating, but low on dramatic juice

Michael Shannon as George Westinghouse in

Michael Shannon as George Westinghouse in  "The Current War."  Credit: 101 Studios/Dean Rogers

PLOT Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse and Nikola Tesla vie for electrical supremacy in the late 1800s.

CAST Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Shannon, Nicholas Hoult

RATED PG-13 (adult themes)


BOTTOM LINE Historically illuminating, but low on dramatic juice.

What oil was to "There Will Be Blood" and data was to "The Social Network," so electricity is to "The Current War: Director's Cut," which follows Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse and Nikola Tesla as they race to deliver light and power to 19th-Century America. Rich with period detail and scientific-industrial factoids, and anchored by several fine performances, "The Current War" works well enough as a historical overview but never quite makes us care about the people at its center. 

Why the "Director's Cut?" The movie has a history of its own. Ahead of its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival in 2017, "The Current War" underwent major edits from producer Harvey Weinstein over the objections of director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon ("Me and Earl and the Dying Girl"). Poor reviews, plus sexual abuse allegations against Weinstein and the bankruptcy of his studio, led to the film being shelved. The new version, distributed by 101 Studios, restores Gomez-Rejon's original vision. 

It's an ambitious attempt to squeeze three fascinating lives into less than two hours. Edison, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, comes off as a headstrong inventor with a flair for self-promotion (Tom Holland plays his publicist-factotum, Samuel Insull). Edison's chief rival, Westinghouse (Michael Shannon, menacing and magnetic as always), is more of a nose-to-the-grindstone industrialist. Bouncing between those poles is Tesla (Nicholas Hoult, employing an unsteady accent), a brilliant eccentric with a spiffy wardrobe and zero business sense. Katherine Waterston and Tuppence Middleton appear briefly as Mmes. Westinghouse and Edison, respectively. 

There are moments of interest here: Edison's smear campaign against Westinghouse, the invention of the electric chair (then seen as a humane alternative to hanging), the now-obscure battle between alternating and direct current. There's also something rather stirring about watching an early T-style power-pole go up on a city street. Michael Wilkinson's handsome costumes and Jan Roelfs' production design — aglow with vintage curlicue-filament bulbs — often make the movie feel like an epic. 

Mostly, though, it feels like a survey course. Michael Mitnick's screenplay, spun off from a musical play he wrote while at Yale, simply crams too much into too little time. The result: information overload and a shortage of human drama. 

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