When Bad People Make Good Movies 

For 'The Current War', a troubled past doesn't eclipse its future

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Dean Rogers

It has been more than two years since I attended The Current War's world premiere. I liked it. I like it a lot. It is a rare endeavor—an original screenplay, fine performances from filmdom's top talent at the top of their games, and a not-often-told tale from our nation's past. After dusting off my notes from the Toronto premiere, I saw that, at the time, I penned that the film "is smart, its sets are gorgeous, and its CGI wizardry is top-level." And at the bottom of my now-fading notes, dated Sept. 9, 2017, I also wrote, "Uh, oh. Look out. Weinstein is in the audience." Translation: Oscar-winning filmmaker Harvey Weinstein, whose physical shadow was outcast only by the shadow of his boorish largesse, was attached to The Current War as its producer, and he was about to mount an Oscar campaign for his latest film. Exactly 30 days later, a story on the front page of The New York Times would trumpet, "Harvey Weinstein Paid Off Sexual Harassment Accusers for Decades." Soon thereafter, The Weinstein Company said it took the allegations "extremely seriously" and sacked Weinstein from the company that bore his name. Weinstein was also ousted from the Motion Picture Academy, arrested on charges of rape and sexual abuse, and the virus that has become known as the "Weinstein effect" took hold. The Weinstein Company ended up filing for bankruptcy and began shedding its assets. Translation: It began selling its films at bargain basement prices to anyone who would take them.

Upstart filmmakers 101 Studios (its plans are to acquire, develop or produce a handful of films each year), closed a deal to acquire domestic distribution rights for The Current War. One silver lining in this horribly dark cloud: the film's director, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, took advantage of the delay by refining his film. Insisting that Weinstein was too eager to rush The Current War to its TIFF premiere in hast to mount an Oscar campaign, Gomez-Rejon said he was able to add five new scenes to the film, yet still come in about 10 minutes shorter than the cut that premiered at TIFF two years ago. The irony is a Hollywood screenplay unto itself: The Current War may be a better film due to Weinstein's downfall.

Starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Thomas Edison and Michael Shannon as George Westinghouse, The Current War tells the story of an intense rivalry between the greatest inventors of the industrial age over whose electrical system would power the new century. Backed by no less than J.P. Morgan, Edison dazzled the world by lighting up Manhattan, literally changing America's economy and even its sleeping patterns overnight. But Westinghouse, aided by Nikola Tesla (portrayed by emerging star Nicholas Hoult), saw flaws in Edison's "direct" current design. Igniting what would be "the current war," Westinghouse teamed with Tesla to bet everything on the more risky and dangerous "alternating" current. Along the way, The Current War's sweeping and near-epic tale, takes us to the White House (where then-President Chester Arthur tries to coax Edison to design weapons of war), New York's Auburn Prison (where the first electrocution goes horribly wrong) and the historic 1893 Chicago World's Fair (where a high-profile competition between Edison and Westinghouse becomes very electric). The film hopscotches across history but sustains a timeless bodiment thanks, for the most part, to the kinetic performances from Cumberbatch and Shannon.

Edison once wrote, "I continue to find my greatest pleasure, and so my reward, in the work that precedes what the world calls success." And Westinghouse, near his life's end, wrote, "If someday they say of me that in my work, I have contributed something to the welfare and happiness of my fellow man, I shall be satisfied." Indeed, The Current War elevates both Edison and Westinghouse to legendary status, we are left to judge for ourselves where they might belong to of-this-world significance.

To be sure, the sparks emitted from Edison and Westinghouse transformed America; and The Current War bundles those sparks to shine a light on a significant chapter of our history. That said, the film's own history—particularly its once-hard wired connection to Harvey Weinstein that nearly short-circuited the entire enterprise—shouldn't be swept away. The artist is gone—or at least, we can hope so. The art endures.

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