I just finished watch the film, “The Current War” starting Benedict Cumberbatch and Micahel Shannon
The film was made in 2017, and then received a director’s cut and re-released in 2019.
It was slated for cinema release here in Australia in March 2020, but the COVID pandemic stopped that. The movie being released on Apple and Google for purchase or rental.
For those that don’t know the meaning behind the title, it refers to a competition between two standards of electrical distribution: direct current, or DC, championed by Thomas Edison, and alternating current or AC, championed by George Westinghouse.
By the late 1870s, both men were already well known. Edison, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, had invented the lightbulb, phonograph and started developing a system to distribute electricity to power the light bulbs. He was by then a very famous individual.
Westinghouse, played by Michael Shannon, the great rail engineer and industrialist, had built his fame and fortune by inventing the train air brake which made a significant impact on the development of the rail industry. By the late 1870’s and into the ‘80s, Westinghouse sought to distribute electricity by a much better system, AC. Its chief advantage: it could be transformed, thus increasing its voltage, and then transport it long distances without significant power loss. DC distribution was only effective I sort distance and thus would require power stations every few km or so, and this could only be practical in large cities.
The movie carries the story as to how these two men responded to the competition between the two systems, culminating in the tender to light the 1893 Chicago World Fair.
It shows the unscrupulous tactics employed by one of them to discredit the other.
I resist giving too much away, since you may not be fully familiar to the story and would like to see the movie for yourself with fresh eyes.
Knowing the story pretty well, I was impressed by the movie to present the story with some balance. Yes, there is a bit of a ‘villain’ element, but the character portrayal isn’t too one dimensional, and you get a sense of the humanity of all the main characters represented.
Edison and Westinghouse are usually the two figures that come to mind in the “Battle of the Currents” how it is also referred, but often Nikola Tesla is left out.
I am glad the movie chooses to include Tesla’s in the story, played by Nicholas Hoult, as he makes a significant contribution to the story.
Having read a few other reviews, there was some criticism that Tesla wasn’t explored further. He did develop the AC induction motor that contributed to the eventual success of the AC distribution. But this movie is really about the vying for the better system for electrical distribution, which was predominantly a battle between Edison and Westinghouse.
Like all movies that start of with “Inspired by true events” there are some inaccuracies. Two events are juxtaposed towards the end that did not occur at the same time. In fact one occurred three years before the other. The death of a character occurred 5 years after the time portrayed. In both cases the director clearly made some changes to the story to better fit in with the narrative of the story.
I don’t think this seriously detracts from the story as a whole.
And there are parts that are stylistic and probably didn't happen. Did investor arrive on a Westinghouse train to be greatly by Edison in the snow with a circle of lights?
Apart from the excellent Cumberbatch, Shannon, and Hoult, the supporting cast also do a great job, with Tom Holland playing Edison’s secretary Samual Insull, Matthew Macfadyen playing JP Morgan and Katherine Waterston, playing Westnhouse’s wife, Marguerite.
Cinematography is excellent as is the soundtrack and the director, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, uses both well to advance the story as well as connect the two main protagonists
The movie is light on physics, it is a hollywood movie after all, but I think serves Physics well as it gives a context to why AC distribution won out in the day.
So overall I enjoyed the movie and recommend it. I would especially encourage students of physics watch it, to give a bit of historical context to electricity and its supply.