We’ve gotten so far past the point where “a good story” is the reason to make a film that the wide release of “The Current War” comes as something of a (no pun intended) shock. Here’s a movie based on 19th-century history, without a superhero in sight, although various cast members of the Marvel and DC comics franchises are on view — more on that below.
The true story really is a good one. “The Current War” looks at the 1880s rush to establish an electrical power grid in the United States. Whoever got there first would reap unimaginable wealth, and considerable bragging rights.
Thomas Edison had a head start. He’d already become a celebrity thanks to the light bulb and other innovations, but when it came to electricity, he backed the wrong horse. Edison put his weight behind DC (that’s direct current, not DC Comics), despite the evidence that AC, or alternating current, would be cheaper and more effective.
Edison and his personal secretary, Samuel Insull, are played by Dr. Strange and Spider-Man — or Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Holland, if you prefer.
Edison’s main rival is George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon, aka General Zod in “Man of Steel”), a wealthy inventor himself. Westinghouse is portrayed as a kinder sort of businessman, and shrewd enough to see that backing AC might land him a much-coveted contract to electrify the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago.
The wild card in the contest is Nikola Tesla (Nicholas Hoult, from the “X-Men” series), the Belgrade-born eccentric. He briefly works for Edison — after being promised a huge bonus for his inventions, he’s later told the offer was a joke, so he quits — and later teams up with Westinghouse on the Chicago project.
The story has lots of strange sidebars (and sideburns), including Edison’s sneaky plot to smear the AC system by secretly consulting on the world’s first electric chair for capital punishment. By wiring the chair up with Westinghouse’s current, Edison thought AC would be associated with danger and deadliness.
“The Current War” probably sounds old-fashioned — a bunch of guys in Victorian suits talking through giant mustaches — with the potential of becoming a “Drunk History” episode. But the movie plays in livelier fashion. Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon skips briskly through each scene, finding quirky angles from which to view the action.
This doesn’t add up to greatness, but it’s fun to watch. The propulsive music by Volker Bertelmann and Dustin O’Halloran is suitably hypnotic, and Michael Mitnick’s script finds humor in unexpected places. (At one point a moneyman chides the destitute Tesla that “nothing will ever be named after you.”)
I would like to have seen an American actor as Edison — good as he is, Cumberbatch doesn’t quite catch the self-made hokum that marked Edison’s appetite for control and credit. Shannon and Hoult are both strong, and Matthew Macfadyen does nicely as the skeptical financier J.P. Morgan.
This film actually debuted at the 2017 Toronto Film Festival in a slightly different version (the current release is billed as a “director’s cut”). One of its producers — Harvey Weinstein, discreetly left out of the credits now — was about to be embroiled in scandal, and “The Current War” got sidelined for a while.
That kind of backstory usually results in a straight-to-Netflix destiny. So give somebody credit for making “The Current War” the year’s unlikeliest multiplex opening.
“The Current War” (3 stars)
The true story of how Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) jousted with George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon) over who got to lay down America’s electrical grid. It’s a fascinating story, handled here in a generally fun, quick-moving style. With Tom Holland, Nicholas Hoult.
Rating: PG-13, for subject matter
Opening Friday: Alderwood Mall, Everett Stadium, Galaxy Monroe, Oak Tree, Pacific Place, Seattle 10, Thornton Place, Woodinville