If you told somebody right now that a movie with Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Holland, Nicholas Hoult, and Michael Shannon was playing at their local AMC right now, chances are they’d at least give it a look. That’s a lot of famous people that have garnered tons of goodwill from both arthouse moviegoers and general audiences alike. The fact that it’s a historical drama chronicling the feud between Thomas Edison (Cumberbatch) and George Westinghouse (Shannon) may even sweeten the pot for history buffs out there. Yes, we’re talking about The Current War.
Despite how this premise and cast sounded like it should be a foolproof recipe for at least some measure of box office success, The Current War dropped into theaters at the end of October 2019 and quickly faded away from anybody’s radar. This fate wasn’t necessarily because this movie was the worst thing to hit the big screen in 2019. Instead, The Current War got caught up in a tormented road to completion, one so fraught with difficulties it may itself inspire a biopic drama someday down the line.
The Earliest Days of ‘The Current War’s Production Saga
Like all wars, The Current War’s story begins long before the most famous bursts of conflict occurred. In 2012, Michael Mitnick‘s screenplay for The Current War went from being a hot script on the 2011 Black List (an annual collection of well-received scripts that haven’t been turned into movies yet) to something that was actually making momentum as a potential future movie. Producer Timur Bekmambetov had acquired the project and was angling to direct the movie. Though known for trashy genre fare, it’s easy to see how Bekmambetov could’ve perceived The Current War as a way to branch off into English-language dramas after his big blockbuster Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter premiered that summer.
By the time 2014 rolled around, Ben Stiller was now the favorite to direct and a new company was in charge of the project (Bekmambetov was still producing): The Weinstein Company. The house that Harvey and Bob Weinstein had built up a reputation over the years, first at Miramax and then at The Weinstein Company, for gravitating towards lavish period piece dramas often chronicling widely recognizable historical figures. The Current War fit right in at a studio that had recently won the Best Picture Oscar for The King’s Speech and had The Imitation Game arriving that fall.
Though The Weinstein Company remained committed to The Current War, Stiller opted to focus on Zoolander 2 and other artistic pursuits instead. This outfit would then secure another notable name to serve as The Current War’s director in 2015: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon. This filmmaker had broken out big on the indie scene at the start of the year by helming Sundance sensation Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. That title couldn’t translate its film festival buzz into mainstream box office success, but studios were still mighty interested in working with Gomez-Rejon. Alongside this directorial choice, two lead actors were announced for The Current with Benedict Cumberbatch and Jake Gyllenhaal slated to play Edison and Westinghouse respectively. These two were hot off headlining box office hits for The Weinstein Company (Imitation Game for Cumberbatch, Southpaw for Gyllenhaal), making their inclusion on the project quite natural.
‘The Current War’ Underwent a Creative Revitalization
The primary creative team was in place. Now it was time for The Current War to get off the ground. Throughout the end of 2016, a flurry of casting news (including Michael Shannon getting announced as Gyllenhaal’s replacement) cropped up and the movie was set to start filming in the final weeks of that year. This project had to get going right away whether it was ready or not…The Weinstein Company needed a hit.
Even before the allegations of unspeakably evil behavior emerged against Harvey Weinstein, The Weinstein Company was in a constant struggle for survival. Being an independent studio in the mid-2010s, one notable flop always had the potential to sink the entire outfit. The Weinstein Company’s output slowed down to a trickle in its final years of existence and movies like Sing Street, The Founder, and Carol all experienced crushingly terrible theatrical runs thanks to the studio’s lack of resources and cash. With The Weinstein Company hanging on for dear life (if even that), executives at this studio looked at a Thomas Edison movie headlined by Benedict Cumberbatch as being a possible lifeline. If The Current War did anything close to the business of Cumberbatch’s The Imitation Game, The Weinstein Company could live another day.
By the start of 2017, a holiday season release for that same year was announced for The Current War. That put the movie smack dab in the middle of award season and echoed the release dates for The Weinstein Company’s biggest releases, like The King’s Speech and Silver Linings Playbook. However, it also ensured that the film would have a rushed post-production period, as The Current War would need to be finished less than a year after it first started shooting. Problems were only exacerbated when a splashy early September premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival only ensured that The Current War now had dismal reviews dangling around its neck. Everything was going haywire with The Current War…and then horrific reality stepped in.
Why Was ‘The Current War’ Caught in Limbo?
In October 2017, the voices spoke up. Countless women came forward to allege Harvey Weinstein of everything from sexual harassment to outright rape. The courage of these people to come forward was as remarkable as the hideousness of Weinstein’s behavior was repulsive. In the wake of this development, The Weinstein Company shut its doors. There was no way a movie studio with that last name was ever going to operate again, at least in its current form. This left many films in the lurch and suddenly without a distributor. A handful of titles that had financing elsewhere, such as Paddington 2 (which was made by StudioCanal), were able to get out of their North American distribution deals with The Weinstein Company and find new homes.
Unfortunately, The Current War was almost entirely a Weinstein Company production, which left it tied to this defunct studio for the foreseeable future. As 2018 itself drew to a close, news finally emerged that Lantern Entertainment, a Texas-based studio that had purchased The Weinstein Company, was preparing to release The Current War in international territories. However, there was still no domestic release plan in place for the feature.
In a breakdown of the movie’s tumultuous history with Business Insider, Gomez-Rejon recalled how he was initially told that Lantern Entertainment was going to dump The Current War out with the version that had premiered at TIFF to such dismal reviews. This was an incarnation of the project that Gomez-Rejon was not pleased with one bit (Harvey Weinstein and other studio executives apparently kept harming the film during shooting with incessant notes) and he yearned for a chance to recut the feature. However, a savior emerged in the form of The Current War’s executive producer Martin Scorsese. A long-time ally and mentor to Gomez-Rejon, Scorsese, it turned out, needed to sign off on any version of the film that distributors were planning to release. Scorsese was adamant that Gomez-Rejon get the time and resources he needed to finish up The Current War before he signed off.
A million dollars was drummed up to overhaul key aspects of The Current War, namely its editing and score, while Cumberbatch, Shannon, and Hoult all returned for a solitary day of reshoots. With that, Gomez-Rejon had a movie he didn’t feel ashamed to have his name on. Scorsese signed off and The Current War hit theaters in October 2019.
There’s only so much you can do with a million dollars. That’s more money than I or any average reader of this piece will ever see or even be able to conceive of. But when it comes to major Hollywood productions like The Current War, it’s not a devastating amount of coin (it’s less than 10% of the $15 million budget of The King’s Speech, for instance). This is all to say that Gomez-Rejon’s noble efforts to salvage The Current War were never going to be as impactful as he would’ve liked simply because of the practical and financial realities he was working with.
In its final form, The Current War is an often amiable but ultimately disposable period piece. Good performances abound, but it still ends up being one of those period-piece biopics that offers lots of surface-level information but no real insight. With a million bucks, a day of reshoots, and a compressed post-production schedule for his cut, there was clearly only so much Gomez-Rejon could do to improve what too often reads as a boilerplate entry in the canon of Weinstein Company historical dramas.
The highest compliment one can offer the film is that its greatest moments do offer some understanding of why people worked so hard, even before the Weinstein allegations, to get this story realized on the big screen. There is something fascinating about a personal war between inventors and businessmen over technology that will end up revolutionizing the country forever. Edison and Westinghouse get caught up in the intimate nuisances of the moment without seeing the much bigger picture traipsing by behind them. It’s a fascinating concept that does manifest in some interesting ways throughout The Current War, a move that experienced endless turmoil and uncertainty every step of the way in its journey to the big screen.