Review – The Battle Of AC/DC (“The Current War: The Director’s Cut”)

Stop me if you’ve heard this one: Dr. Strange, Spider-man, General Zod, and X-Men’s Beast walk into a bar and… oh, ya heard that one, huh? Never mind. In a sorta-kinda true story, we meet the trifecta of powerful men that ruled the electric waves: Westinghouse, Edison, and Tesla.

First, a backstory: this movie was originally released at the Toronto Film Festival in 2017, then re-cut by director Alphonso Gomez-Rejon after his movie was shelved (part of the Weinstein fiasco.) Anyway, it’s the 1890’s and leading the field in electricity is Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) and his DC (direct current) method, his light bulbs, and something new he invented called a gramophone (the future record player).

Dubbed “the wizard of Menlo Park”, he lit up a whole NY city block and gathered favor with his backer, super-rich banker J.P Morgan (Matthew MacFadyen). Edison’s loving wife (Tuppence Middleton) and devoted secretary, Samuel Insull (Tom Holland, using his natural accent for once) couldn’t be happier… but it’s short-lived as ruthless George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon) and his brilliant engineer, Franklin Pope (Stanley Townsend) start using cheaper, more efficient AC (alternating current) to sell electricity  to the masses AND using Edison’s light bulb design too boot! This guy’s got guts!

But while these two are blasting each other in the press, a third genius pops up: very strange, but gifted Nikola Tesla (Nicholas Hoult) from Serbia. After working for Edison and then leaving on his own, he wants to construct an array of electrical towers that will distribute power–with NO wires! Problem is, all his terrific inventions and machines are in his head, not physically constructed for backers to see. Meanwhile, the war heats up with Edison claiming Westinghouse’s AC current can kill you, and demonstrates it by frying a horse with AC current. Ouch!

Westinghouse counters by blackmailing Edison about some secret papers he wrote about inventing the electric chair for prisons. Boy, these two guys really don’t like each other! Finally, it all comes down to the incredible 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and who will win the exclusive (and lucrative) bid for lighting the place up. It’s right about then Tesla comes to Westinghouse with a wild idea: a machine to harness electricity by using Niagara Falls’ water power! The rest is history.

Mostly a playwright, Michael Mitnick (The Giver) has taken some liberties with his ‘fact based’ screenplay (like that horse electrocution? It was really an elephant and it happened in 1903, not 1891). Still, many of the facts are there and the story (however skewed) remains fascinating as well as entertaining. The dialogue isn’t dated like most period pictures and pace moves at a nice clip, probably due to the editing in this special ‘directors cut’.

And speaking of which, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl) must’ve gone to the Sam Raimi School of Direction, as none of his camera angles or shots are wasted; they’re all over the map like a kid in a candy store. There’s close-ups, deep focus, wide-angle, shutter-stocks, over-heads, fish-eye zooms, running track shots, slam edits, my God! It’s like he was in film school and the teacher said, “Use every camera angle possible”. It may be disconcerting seeing SO many in just one movie, but it ain’t boring.

Then there’s the lavish production values and lighting that are truly beautiful, coupled with the acting chops of Cumberbatch, Shannon, and Hoult. For a docudrama about electricity, it certainly isn’t dull; you get an insight into the lives of these three men and what drove them. You want historically accurate? Look these guys up on Wikipedia for the real stories.

Fun Fact: Inside the Livermore, CA Fire Dept there’s a light bulb that’s been burning non-stop since 1901. No one knows how or what’s the filament inside to make it last so long! Google it!

Young Tom Edison (1940

Tom Edison. Before he became the lying, cheating scoundrel we all now know he is, he was a tween that, in this highly fictionalized Hollywood version, was misunderstood by his parents, ridiculed by his schoolmates and townspeople, and was thought of being a nutcase.

The screenplay by Hugo Butler, Bradbury Foote, and Dore Schary takes alot of liberties with the facts, like the Edison’s actually having seven children, not two as depicted here. The great Mickey Rooney, not singing or dancing this time, portrays young Tom Edison, a free-thinker, inventor, and real mischievous rascal who can’t seem to stay out of trouble. His curmudgeon father, Samuel Edison (George Bancroft), thinks the boy is cray-cray, but his loving wife, Nancy (Fay Bainter), knows better.

Younger sister Tannie (Virginia Weidler), is just along for the ride, always sticking up for her nutty brother, while Tom is constantly coming up with the most idiotic, yet genius ways of getting himself a whipping by his dad when things go wrong. But this Tom doesn’t shirk at danger; he saves a baby from being run over by a train and, because he knows Morse Code, he single-handedly saves a train (and their passengers) from certain death. But his most heroic and inventive brainstorming comes up when he invents refractive lighting with mirrors on the spot to save his mom during an impromptu surgery.

It’s very 1940 with dialogue peppered with “gee willikurs!” and “gosh, you’re smart!” and silly scenes like Tom getting a fake spanking, his vulture-like schoolteacher (Eily Malyon playing the Miss Gulch card) being a real a-hole, Tom’s dad and him tag-team beating up a real nasty father/son pair, Tom having an odd penchant for keeping his hands in his pockets, over-acting schoolchildren, and that queasy feeling that you’re watching a movie that, back in 1940, this was acceptable movie-making. Yikes!

Proficient Norman Taurog directed this and knew his stuff. Starting off in the silent era, he directed well into the 60’s, having made almost all the Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland musicals, the Dean Martin/Jerry Lewis comedies, and those wacky Elvis Presley movies. What sets this apart is Rooney’s performance; he doesn’t do his usual mugging, singing, or comedic shenanigans. Instead, he shows a more serious side that critics lauded him for. Yes, the movie is cheesy, absurd and, if you know your history, truly dumbed-down for the audiences back then, but it made money and was accepted into AFI’s prestigious film institute. Not too shabby, huh?