Greetings again from the darkness. Electricity. Bringing light and power to the world. Other than dependable food sources and clean water and air, nothing is more vital to our way of life today. However, going back in time only 125 years finds the sun and candlelight as the only forms of illumination. Oh, but behind the doors of laboratories for Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse, skilled engineers were working diligently to discover the breakthrough that would deliver light to the dark world.
Normally the making of a movie is not a story worth telling. The final work should speak for itself. But the story of this film’s road to the screen is not normal. This was the film Harvey Weinstein was working on when his sex abuse scandal broke. Weinstein went ahead with the screening of the film at the 2017 Toronto Film Festival despite pleas from the director that the film was not ready to be shown. Once the scandal hit, director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (the excellent ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL, 2015) was helpless – he couldn’t access the film for reshoots and final edit. Now, after two years of legal wranglings, he is finally able to present his finished project.
On one hand, it’s a feel good story for the director. On the other hand, the film falls short of being a top notch historical drama … despite it being a real life drama that changed the world. Most would agree there isn’t much entertainment value in watching the daily trial and error of engineers in a lab, so it makes perfect sense that director Gomez-Rejon and writer Michael Mitnick would turn their focus on the personal and professional rivalry between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse, as well as a portion of the story involving Serbian immigrant Nikola Tesla – perhaps the most brilliant of them all.
Benedict Cumberbatch plays Edison, a true celebrity and renowned inventor. We see how Edison’s family life with wife Mary (Tuppence Middleton) takes a back seat to his work at his Menlo Park lab; a trait that becomes more extreme after a personal tragedy. Michael Shannon plays George Westinghouse, developer of railway air brakes, in a stoic and focused manner, and with a close relationship with his wife Marguerite (Katherine Waterston). Nicholas Hoult portrays Nikola Tesla, he of brilliant mind contrasted with quirky and fastidious ways. The other two key players here are Matthew Macfayden as JP Morgan, the banker who finances much of the work, and Tom Holland as Samuel Insull, Edison’s loyal assistant.
While difficult to imagine now, the big debate boiled down to what form of electricity was most practical for the masses. Edison believed it was direct current (DC), while Westinghouse and Tesla were all in for alternating current (AC), which they believed to be cheaper and more powerful. Edison, ever the media manipulator, created questions of public safety in regards to AC by pulling dramatic public stunts. An interesting note here is that despite Edison’s pledge to never invent military weapons or anything designed to take a life, it was his work that led to the use of the electric chair as a replacement for hangings in death penalty cases.
This rivalry between two titans of industry never seems to click, and sadly, Tesla’s story comes across as an add-on to the movie – though his work is worthy of its own movie. Westinghouse deals with his Civil War flashbacks, and Edison’s coarse nature is dulled somewhat here in an effort to make him a bit more appealing as a character. The 1893 Chicago World’s Fair provides the “finish line” for this competition, with the winner lighting up the Fair and setting the stage for the rest of the country. There are flickers of a great movie here, and the performances reach the expected levels for such a strong cast, but overall the movie comes across a bit disjointed and trying much too hard to be regarded as a prestigious film.
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