If you leave aside the horrid issue of sexual assault and focus solely on matters of taste and aspiration, it is entirely fair to describe Bob Weinstein as a bottom feeder and Harvey, for all his detestable private behavior, as a guy who at least understood and respected smarthouse cinema. But not Bob. In their heyday Bob was Irwin Yablans to Harvey’s Frank Yablans. Bob has never given a shit about quality — he’s an exploitation guy who just wants to sell tickets.
So when I read yesterday that Bob is bumping Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s The Current War into 2018, I knew it was tantamount to a burial. It wouldn’t have done well commercially anyway, but now it’s “a cat in a bag with the bag in a river,” as Sidney Falco might’ve said.
And that’s really too bad. The Current War is weird and slow but an interesting film, and a highly unusual and eccentric one by visual standards alone. It’s a cerebral, vaguely boring Terrence Malick thing mixed with How The West Was Won. Every scene, line and frame tells you it was made by talented, forward-thinking cool cats trying to be different and distinctive, and now it’s probably going to be thrown into the bin. A shame.
The movie is basically an AC/DC thing — the battle between direct vs. alternating currents of electricity in the late 1880s and early 1890s, or a stab at creating compelling drama out of a battle of opposing modes and strategies for providing electricity to the public.
This in itself, especially in an era of increasingly downscale if not submental approaches to mass entertainment, is highly eccentric. But the tone of inspirational strangeness doesn’t end there.
The DC team was led by genius inventor Thomas A. Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) while the AC approach was steamrolled by engineer-businessman George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon) with a late-inning assist from genius Serbian inventor Nikola Tesla (Nicholas Hoult).
This is fine as far as histrionic line readings, personality conflicts and eccentric facial-hair appearances are concerned, but an especially striking visual style from South Korean dp Chung Hoon-Chung (It, The Handmaiden, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl) compounds the fascination.
In an attempt to reflect the unusual, headstrong mentalities of Edison and Westinghouse, Gomez-Rejon and Chung have gone with a kind of early ‘60s Cinerama approach to visual composition — widescreen images, wide-angle lenses and a frequent decision to avoid conventional close-ups and medium shots in favor of what has to be called striking if not bizarre avant-garde framings in which the actors are presented as smallish figures against dynamically broad images and vast painterly landscapes.
The look of The Current War, in short, closely resembles the extreme wide-angle compositions in 1962’s How The West Was Won.
This visual signature will constitute a huge draw for cinema dweebs, who will no doubt celebrate the audacious yesteryear novelty of such an approach, but average popcorn viewers are probably going to feel a tad confused and disoriented as they try to process what boils down to an experimental arthouse way of shooting a movie, and a curious historical biopic at that.
Gomez-Rejon and Chung deserve approval for choosing a highly unusual method of telling a story that — be honest — your average American moron is going to have very little interest in to begin with.
I can’t honestly say that the screenplay, penned by 34 year-old Michael Mitnick, really sang for me. It struck me as overly 21st Century in its adherence to certain colloquial signatures and attitudes, but at least it’s a dutiful, reasonably literate stab at an ornate subject that doesn’t exactly lend itself to dramatic convention.
I for one was excited and intrigued all through The Current War, but at the same time I was telling myself “this is great, fascinating stuff but it’s not gonna make a dime.” Cheers nonetheless to everyone involved, including distributor Harvey Weinstein, who needs a hit at this stage.
If you want to dance through the saga of what history has generally referred to as “the war of currents”, here’s a Wiki page summary.