Benedict Cumberbatch (right) and Tom Holland map out the future of electricity in “The Current War.” (101 Studios)

Benedict Cumberbatch (right) and Tom Holland map out the future of electricity in “The Current War.” (101 Studios)

You’ll get a charge out of fun, fast-moving ‘The Current War’

The movie tells the story of Thomas Edison’s 19th century fight with George Westinghouse over the power grid.

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

Talk to us

More in Life

After 43 years, Robb Hunt is retiring as Village Theatre's executive producer. (Village Theatre)
The Village Theatre’s Robb Hunt to retire after 43 years

He brought the Issaquah-based theater’s award-winning productions to Everett in 1994.

"Washington Farm," ca. 1934 Oil on canvas, 27 1/2 × 33 1/2 in. Collection of Lindsey and Carolyn Echelbarger, promised gift to Cascadia Art Museum
Edmonds museum spotlights Japanese-American artist’s journey

Kenjiro Nomura’s art ranges from pre-war impressions to post-war abstractions — and images from inside WWII internment camps.

Anya Taylor-Joy, left, and Thomasin McKenzie in "Last Night in Soho." MUST CREDIT: Parisa Taghizadeh/Focus Features
‘Last Night in Soho’ a stylish, blood-soaked ode to ‘60s London

Director Edgar Wright peppers the cast with icons of the era, including Terence Stamp and the late Diana Rigg in her last film role.

Gene Simmons impersonator, Jack Murrin practices on there bass guitar at his storage building on Thursday, Oct. 21, 2021 in Everett, Washington. Murrin, 51, a firefighter and impersonator, is putting on a 2-hour KISS concert with 19 songs in front of his north Everett home on Halloween.  (Andy Bronson / The Herald)
The Demon: Gene Simmons imitator hosts a free Kiss concert

Everett firefighter and paramedic Jack Murrin will return to the stage for a Halloween show at his home.

Simple recipes for gluten-free baked goods — even bread — yes, really

“Cannelle et Vanille” blogger Aran Goyoaga has written a cookbook of straightfoward bakes without gluten.

A.J. Croce, son of the late Jim Croce, is scheduled to perform Nov. 20 at the Edmonds Center for the Arts.
All about music: Schedule of concerts around Snohomish County

The listings include Sir Mix-a-Lot, ZZ Top and Bands, Brews and Bowling at Evergreen Lanes in Everett.

The Jimmy Wright Band is scheduled to play a Halloween Party on Oct. 30 at Pub 282 on Camano Island. (YouTube)
Where to hear live music in Snohomish County nightclubs

The listings include Engel’s Pub, Mirkwood Public House and Port Gardner Bay Winery shows.

Peter Rivera, the original lead singer and drummer for Rare Earth, will perform Nov. 6 with his band at the Historic Everett Theatre. (Peter Rivera)
Tickets for sale in Snohomish County and around the region

The listings include Historic Everett Theatre, Edmonds Center for the Arts and Thumbnail Theater shows.

See Dawn Cornell as Judge Laura Wargrave and Bill Kusler as Gen. John Mackenzie in Red Curtain's production of "And Then There Were None," showing at the Marysville theater through Nov. 3. (Larry T. Lisk)
Theater, dance and comedy shows around Snohomish County

The listings include Historic Everett Theatre, Edmonds Center for the Arts and Thumbnail Theater shows.

Most Read