Directed by: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon
Written by: Michael Mitnick
Produced by: Timur Bekmambetov, Basil Iwanyk, Steven Zaillian
Other cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Shannon, Nicholas Hoult, Katherine Waterston, Tuppence Middleton, Matthew Macfadyen
Release date: 26 July 2017
Premiere date: 9 September 2017 (Toronto International Film Festival)
Genre: Historical drama
Running time: 107 minutes
The dramatic story of the cutthroat race between electricity titans Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse to determine whose electrical system would power the modern world.
It is 1880 and Thomas Edison has unveiled his electric lightbulb and has decided on Direct Current (DC) which is cheaper and cleaner than gaslight but it is limited in range and expensive. George Westinghouse, a successful business man and inventor himself, wishes to learn more, and invites Edison to dinner. After being snubbed by Edison, Westinghouse sets out to prove Alternating Current (AC) is the better technology as it can work over greater distances and at significantly lower cost. Edison and Westinghouse compete to get cities across the United States to use their system. Brilliant inventor Nikola Tesla arrives in the United States and begins working with Edison, but is disappointed by Edison’s unwillingness to reconsider his ideas and to fulfill what Tesla thought was a financial promise which Edison passes off as just a joke. Tesla then leaves Edison’s team. Edison fiercely guards his patents and sues Westinghouse.
Edison suggests that AC is dangerous and engages in a publicity war, while Westinghouse stands behind the technical merits of AC. As Edison struggles to find ways to make DC more affordable, Westinghouse attempts to get the high-voltage AC system to work with motors. Edison’s wife dies, and Westinghouse is also struck with personal tragedy when his friend Franklin Pope dies in an electrical accident. Both face significant financial risk. To generate funds Edison commercially sells his speaking machine “The Phonograph”. To damage the reputation of AC, Edison shows that it easily electrocutes animals, and secretly works to help the creators of execution by electric chair, despite his previous objections to manufacturing weapons or other machines of death. The first person to die by electrocution is William Kemmler, and newspapers label the event as “Far Worse Than Hanging”. Westinghouse discovers Edison’s involvement and reveals it to the press.
After an unsuccessful attempt to strike out on his own, Tesla is approached by Westinghouse to work together, and build a practical AC motor. Edison is increasingly marginalized and J. P. Morgan merges Edison Electric into General Electric. The competing systems come to a head as they both put forward proposals to illuminate the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Samuel Insull presents the bid on behalf of Edison, and Westinghouse presents his competing bid. The abundantly lit fair is revealed. Westinghouse was successful. At the fair Westinghouse and Edison meet briefly. Edison discusses what it was like to achieve a great invention, and suggests that his next invention (motion pictures) could be so incredible that people might forget his name was ever associated with electricity.
Michael Mitnick began writing the script for The Current War in 2008, basing it on the real life conflict between Edison and Westinghouse. The film’s screenplay is the product of sixty drafts and a ten-year writing process that began as a musical and turned into a film.
In 2011, Mitnick’s screenplay made the Black List, an industry survey of “most liked” screenplays not yet produced. On 3 May 2012, it was reported that Timur Bekmambetov’s company Bazelevs had acquired the rights to Mitnick’s screenplay, with Bekmambetov set to direct. On 31 March 2014, it was reported that Ben Stiller was in negotiations to direct the film. As of 24 September 2015, Benedict Cumberbatch and Jake Gyllenhaal were in talks to play Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse, respectively, with Alfonso Gomez-Rejon now eyed to direct the film. Sacha Baron Cohen was also briefly linked to the role of Edison.
On 29 September 2016, Michael Shannon was officially cast as Westinghouse, and on 4 October, Nicholas Hoult was cast as Nikola Tesla. In November 2016, Katherine Waterston and Tom Holland were announced to have joined the cast. The following month, Tuppence Middleton and Matthew Macfadyen were cast.
Principal photography began on 18 December 2016, and took place in London and the surrounding areas, as well as in Rothbury, Northumberland, where Cragside House was used as a location. Filming also took place at Brighton Pavilion. Home Farm in Kent, England was used as the exterior of Edison’s residence.
The film was submitted to the Toronto International Film Festival before post-production work was completed, and was subsequently rushed in order to make the late-September 2017 premiere date. Following the unfavorable reception towards the film, director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon began working on trimming the runtime for the planned November 2017 theatrical release.
After the sexual abuse allegations against Weinstein came to light, work on the film ceased as The Weinstein Company would eventually sell off the rights. Thanks to a clause in executive producer Martin Scorsese’s contract, he had to approve all final cuts of the film, which resulted in Alfonso Gomez-Rejon being able to raise $1 million to complete post-production, as well as do one day of reshoots in England with Cumberbatch, Middleton and Hoult.
The film was originally scheduled to be released by The Weinstein Company on 22 December 2017, and then rescheduled for 24 November 2017. It had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival on 9 September 2017. It was then pulled from release following the sexual abuse allegations that arose against Harvey Weinstein, the co-head of The Weinstein Company at the time.
In October 2018, Lantern Entertainment, which acquired The Weinstein Company’s assets through its bankruptcy, and 13 Films, an international distribution and finance company, struck a deal to co-distribute the film internationally. In April 2019, it was announced 101 Studios had acquired distribution rights to the film for $3 million, and committed to a wide release.
Alfonso Gomez-Rejon said since the Toronto premiere he had added five additional scenes and trimmed ten minutes from the runtime. It was released on 26 July 2019, in the United Kingdom and 25 October 2019 in the United States after being previously scheduled for 4 October. The theatrical release included the subtitle “The Director’s Cut” in all countries but the United Kingdom.
The Current War grossed $6 million in the United States & Canada and $6.3 million in other territories, for a worldwide total of $12.3 million against a production budget of $30 million. The film was first released on DVD, Blu-Ray and digital download in the United Kingdom by Entertainment in Video on 18 November 2019. In the United States, Universal Pictures released the film for digital download on 17 March 2020 before releasing it on DVD and Blu-Ray on 31 March 2020.
On Rotten Tomatoes, the version of the film screened at Toronto International Film Festival has an approval rating of 31% based on 55 reviews, with an average rating of 4.80/10. The Director’s Cut version of the film has an approval rating of 61% based on 104 reviews, with an average rating of 6.39/10.
Sienna Miller was considered for a lead role in the early stages of the project.
The original cut was rated PG-13 by the MPAA for “some violent content and thematic elements.”