The Current War

A disappointing movie about an important moment in history.

The Current WarDirected by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, The Current War is a slapstick, slow-moving, dull depiction concerning the birth of electricity in the United States. Despite having some great actors, the film slowly beats itself to death in the same fashion it does the audience.

In the late 1800s, Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse and Nikola Tesla are engaged in a competition to see who could design the most efficient way to allow electricity to spread to every home across the country. Edison, played by the very talented Benedict Cumberbatch, is portrayed as an arrogant man who was to become one of the great inventors in American history.

Edison used a direct current which he found to be far more safe than Westinghouse’s alternating current (AC). Edison tried to label Westinghouse’s AC design as putting anyone at risk who may have touched a loose wire or a generator which led to a debate over the electric chair which I will discuss later. In the end, their debate led them to the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1892 where Westinghouse’s design prevailed.

Michael Shannon and Nicholas Hoult play Westinghouse and Tesla. Unfortunately, both characters are sadly one-dimensional. Shannon’s performance in the Oscar winning The Shape of Water (2017) was far more compelling and Mr. Holt was not permitted to rise to the same magnificent level he displayed in Warm Bodies (2013), Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) and the very underrated Rebel in the Rye (2017) where he played J.D. Salinger. Ironically, one of the best performances came from Tom Holland who stepped away from Spider-Man to play Edison’s assistant, Samuel Insull.

While this movie has numerous weaknesses as mentioned above, none is greater than the reality that it ignored the great talents of Katherine Waterston, who played Mrs. Westinghouse, and Tuppence Middleton who played Mrs. Edison. Both are as artistically gifted as their better known male counterparts, and you simply wanted to see more of them.

However, what really captured my attention about this film was the role Edison played in the development of the Electric Chair. Though Edison took a public position where he opposed capital punishment, he helped develop this electronic device as a form of propaganda to demonize Westinghouse’s alternating current. In the process, you see him holding exhibitions where he used an electric current to kill a large horse.

The most emotional moment of this film for me occurred when the first man to die in the Electric Chair, William Kemmler, was executed in 1890 in Auburn, NY. While Edison succeeded in convincing politicians that the Electric Chair was the most painless way of putting a convicted individual to death, he was proven wrong when Kemmler had to be repeatedly subjected to an increased form of electrical voltage. In the process, smoke rose from his body as the smell of burnt skin filled the room.

I witnessed such an execution in Michigan City in 1996 when Gregory Resnover, a client represented by me, Monica Foster, Rhonda Long Sharp and Joseph Cleary, was put to death. I was the one attorney who personally witnessed it, and I watched smoke and small flames rise from his body as the smell of human flesh permeated the room in the same fashion as occurred in this film. While it remains the most horrible moment I have experienced in over four decades of work as a criminal defense lawyer, we were successful in having the Indiana Legislature eliminate the use of the Electric Chair even though we couldn’t save Gregory’s life.

While Edison went on to create many new inventions which included the first motion picture leading to the birth of the movie industry, I could never forgive him for his work on the Electric Chair. While the trauma forced me to stop doing death penalty cases, the memory lingers as if it happened yesterday.