The Current War is a historical drama directed by Alfonzo Gomez-Rejon about the Real Life rivalry between Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon) over large-scale electrification. Edison's Direct Current makes a big smash as it lights up Manhattan, while the businessman Westinghouse, detecting a flaw in Edison's technology, develops (with the help of former Edison employee Nikola Tesla, played by Nicholas Hoult) Alternating Current as an alternative, setting up a bitter and cutthroat competition between the two over the future of electricity.
The cast also includes Tom Holland as Edison's assistant Samuel Insull, Katherine Waterston as Westinghouse's wife Marguerite, Tuppence Middleton as Edison's wife Mary and Matthew Macfadyen as banker J.P. Morgan.
The Current War contains examples of:
- Armor-Piercing Question: When presenting their case for DC to power the Chicago World's Fair, Samuel Insull again argues that AC is deadly. However, just before leaving, Insull makes the mistake of pointing out that any current over a certain strength is deadly. The panel is quick to jump on that with the question: "Even yours?" Based on Insull's expression, he realizes that he may have just destroyed Edison's chances.
- Artistic License History: Edison is depicted as mourning his late wife throughout the War of the Currents with their children. In reality, he remarried two years later, in the midst of the war, and went on to have three more children. The film also depicts the Westinghouses as childless, when in reality they had a son.
- Corrupt Corporate Executive: Tesla runs afoul of one after leaving Edison, who cheat him out of all his patents when he needs more time to complete his designs. J. P. Morgan is a downplayed example, since Edison has been wasting his money trying to fight a losing war and Tesla's newly-invented AC motor is the last straw, but he still fires Edison from his own company.
- Darkest Hour: Edison is losing the Current War, and has just lost his beloved wife to some kind of brain disease, when he meets with Brown to begin developing an electric chair. The scene surrounds both men with shadows, demonstrating the dark place Edison's sinking to.
- Seen with Westinghouse to a lesser degree after the accidental death of Pope (his chief engineer), which comes at the time when Edison's anti-AC publicity campaign is already taking its toll on Westinghouse's fortunes.
- Do Wrong, Right: Westinghouse recounts an anecdote from his youth where his father attempted to smack him with a tree branch. The branch broke after two strikes and young Westinghouse recommended to his dad that a nearby leather strap would do better. His point, as stated afterwards, is that he can accept anything that came his way but cannot tolerate it if there's poor craftsmanship involved.
- Double-Meaning Title: The "Current" in the title can refer to electrical current, which is the subject of the "war," or it can refer to how the "war" was such an important current event at the time.
- Exact Words: Edison argues that "his [Westinghouse's] current kills," and he is absolutely right, it does, as we all know about the dangers of electrocution in real life. However, the danger is all about the strength of the current, with the type making no difference. It is true that Edison's current is the safer of the two, especially given Westinghouse loses his top engineer and personal friend to experiments with an AC motor, but Edison shies away from the technical descriptions in favor of lurid soundbites throughout.
- Friendly Enemy: There are hints of this in the penultimate scene of the film, the first one where the two men have met face-to-face, where Westinghouse interrupts Edison's rant about having his work stolen to ask Edison to describe the feeling when Edison first made a bulb that burned for 13.5 hours, and Edison, putting away his grudge for a moment, does so in moving terms.
- Hoist by His Own Petard: Edison goes against his own nonviolent principles to help the state of New York develop the electric chair but insisting that all correspondence be burned and Westinghouse's name be attached to the device. Westinghouse launching a legal case against this means of execution and Edison's letters being recovered leads to Edison being associated with the chair, especially after the first execution ends up being botched (in all fairness, he warned the officials that it may not work).
- Honest Corporate Executive: Downplayed for both Edison and Westinghouse. They are willing to fight dirty in their clash with one another, but neither of them is driven by greed for wealth, and they are both shown to be quite fair and generous employers to their work forces.
- Insistent Terminology: The press repeatedly treats the electricity Edison and Westinghouse offers as their separate individual properties. Westinghouse refutes this and insists that it's the systems that are different; electricity is just electricity.
- Insufferable Genius: Repeatedly pointed out regarding Edison, who his partners and ex-employees admit is difficult to work with, and who gets hung up on receiving proper credit for things more than being properly paid for them. He gruffly tells his friend and secretary, Insull, that J. P. Morgan's hired him onto Edison General Electric because he's "me, but a human being." Downplayed with Tesla, who struggles to properly market and profit from his genius, with the closing text admitting he died quite poor.
- Irony: In the closing text, it's noted that Westinghouse won the highest honor the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers can bestow: the Edison Medal.
- It Will Never Catch On:
- An intentionally ironic quote is "There's never going to be anything named 'Tesla' ever again." In Real Life, the audiences are likely aware of the prominent electric car company named Tesla.
- In his final scene with Westinghouse, Edison remarks that his newest invention will overshadow anything he's made to the point where it's likely that his name will no longer be associated with electricity. The new invention is Film and ironically Edison got it a bit backwards.
- Leaning on the Fourth Wall: In the final scene, Edison watches a movie in a newly opened cinema. His last lengthy stare at the screen is captured exactly straight into the camera as if he is giving us a Meaningful Look - from the creator of movie technology to its final consumers.
- A Lighter Shade of Grey: While neither Edison nor Westinghouse is properly the "villain" of the picture, and the movie shies away from neither of their flaws as human beings, Westinghouse is generally the more sympathetic of the two, compared to the prickly Edison who is willing to use his own celebrity and distortions of the truth to try to bury AC power, and who arguably starts their feud twice-over by snubbing Westinghouse and treating Westinghouse's own attempts to enter his market as a snub. That said, Westinghouse is, unlike Edison, willing to stoop to outright criminal action to muscle him, hiring criminals to steal his correspondence with Brown about building the first electric chair.
- Malicious Slander:
- Edison's real-life efforts to describe the AC current pioneered by Westinghouse, excusing his own drawbacks with the supposedly much greater danger of AC compared to his DC.Edison: Did I mention that his system's lethal? Now, you reach out to touch a doorknob or a rail, and... well, you become the circuit.
Reporter: Well, just to be clear on that point...
Edison: Well, you die.
- Insull follows suit as well, during his pitch for Edison's current to be used in the World's Columbian Exposition."Should you choose Westinghouse, then... then, yes, there is a possibility you'll be putting in jeopardy the lives of 28 million people. Even if Westinghouse were to make even the smallest of errors, unintentional, of course, a visiting politician, a wife, even a 7-year-old girl may lean against a lamp post and be struck dead immediately."
- Edison's real-life efforts to describe the AC current pioneered by Westinghouse, excusing his own drawbacks with the supposedly much greater danger of AC compared to his DC.
- The Man Behind the Man: Edison has business tycoon J.P. Morgan backing him.
- Person as Verb: Edison tries to start calling someone being killed by electricity as being "westinghoused" as part of his smear campaign (and also because the word "electrocuted" didn't exist yet). Westinghouse balks at having his name associated with it and contemplated selling the power company, but his wife convinces him to fight.
- Screw the Money, I Have Rules!: Subverted. Edison says he abhors the thought of his inventions taking human life and will not create a killing device for any price, but he ultimately helps design the electric chair in an attempt to help him win the War of the Currents.
- Screw the Rules, I'm Doing What's Right!: After Edison's efforts to smear the AC current as unsafe, Westinghouse decides to fight back to counter these attempts with similarly dirty tactics.
- Sharp-Dressed Man: Tesla is always depicted in immaculate, colorful suits even when he's flat broke.
- Spreading Disaster Map Graphic: Edison builds himself a wired map of the United States with sockets in places of major cities. Whenever a city is lighted by his DC power, he inserts a yellow bulb into the socket. If a city goes with Westinghouse's AC power, he uses a red bulb. He ends up trashing the map in the end destroying the yellow bulbs, acknowledging his defeat.
- Trailers Always Lie: Tesla's role in the film is greatly exaggerated by the trailer. The Edison vs. Westinghouse rivalry is the center point of the movie. Tesla is a side character who helps Westinghouse later on.
- Warts and All: Westinghouse burned all his personal correspondence upon death, wanting history to remember him solely for his actions and his impact on the world.
- Wolverine Publicity: Discussed by the committee running the World Fair. Westinghouse's system is cheaper but (according to reputation) riskier, but Edison's name is a selling point that is sure to draw more attendees.