In The Current War, brilliant inventors and arch-rivals Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Nikola Tesla (Nicholas Hoult) engage in increasingly vicious tactics in the battle to determine whether direct current (DC) or alternating current (AC) technology will ultimately bring electricity to the world at large. The film is based on an especially riveting period in the history of science: the so-called “war of the currents.”
Produced by Martin Scorsese and directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, The Current War actually premiered in 2017 at the Toronto Film Festival, and the Weinstein Company signed on as distributors. But then Harvey Weinstein was credibly accused of sexual abuse and stepped down from the company. The Current War was shelved and eventually sold off when the company declared bankruptcy, ending up with 101 Studios. And now it will get a broad theatrical release, in a slightly different form. Per Gomez-Rejon, he has added five additional scenes and trimmed ten minutes from the runtime.
In the late 19th century, most motors still ran on DC power, and attempts to create an AC version had failed. In 1882, while working as an electrical engineer with a Hungarian telephone company, Tesla conceived of a rotating magnetic field produced by two or more alternating currents out of step with each other—a sort of magnetic whirlwind that could be used to drive an electric motor. Within a few months he’d sketched out plans for all the components of a full power generating system.
Tesla emigrated to the US two years later and joined Thomas Edison’s lab in Menlo Park, New Jersey. But Edison brusquely dismissed Tesla’s idea for an AC system of power generation—largely because Edison had already invested heavily in promoting his own DC system.
Hundreds of central power stations were cropping up across America, each using different combinations of circuits and equipment. Edison’s Pearl Street generating station in Manhattan supplied DC power to a few hundred mansions of wealthy New Yorkers, as well as a smattering of mills, factories, and theaters in the city. George Westinghouse espoused AC, with more than 30 plants in operation by 1887. Whoever emerged victorious stood to gain a veritable monopoly on a highly lucrative market. When Tesla quit his job with Edison in a huff after being denied a promised bonus, Westinghouse was waiting in the wings and hired him.
That’s when things got nasty. Edison’s propaganda machine pumped out hundreds of flyers and pamphlets on the dangers of alternating current, even electrocuting small animals in front of newspaper reporters. He called this being “Westinghoused.” Tesla countered with spectacular public lectures to demonstrate the safety of AC current, shooting sparks from his fingertips, making light bulbs glow, and even melting metals by running current through his body.
“My boys and I caught in a jar what before now has only flashed across the night sky.”
The trailer gives us tantalizing flashes of much of this, opening with Cumberbatch’s Edison announcing, “My boys and I caught in a jar what before now has only flashed across the night sky.” Tesla, meanwhile, tells Michael Shannon’s Westinghouse that he dreams of surpassing Edison and becoming “the greatest provider of electrical power in the whole world.”
We see the propaganda sheets, the claims that AC power will kill people, and lots of nifty-looking electrical equipment from that era—a time of rapid invention that essentially remade the world. “If you want to be remembered, it’s simple: Shoot a president,” the film’s Westinghouse declares. “But if you prefer to have what I call a legacy, you leave the world a better place than you found it.”
Of course, we already know which man ultimately won the war of the currents. In 1893, the Columbian Exposition in Chicago chose AC to light up its “White City,” the centerpiece of its World of Tomorrow exhibit. That successful demonstration was sufficient to give the victory to Westinghouse and Tesla. But it will be interesting to see how well The Current War depicts these two larger-than-life personalities, and their shared antagonism, on the silver screen—a business sector where Edison did emerge victorious.
The Current War hits theaters October 4, 2019.
Listing image by YouTube/101 Studios