Directed By Alfonso Gomez-Rejon
Starring – Michael Shannon, Benedict Cumberbatch, Nicholas Hoult
The Plot – The epic story of the cutthroat competition that literally lit up the modern world. Cumberbatch is Thomas Edison, the celebrity inventor on the verge of bringing electricity to Manhattan with his radical new DC technology. On the eve of triumph, his plans are upended by charismatic businessman George Westinghouse (Shannon), who believes he and his partner, the upstart genius Nikolai Tesla (Hoult), have a superior idea for how to rapidly electrify America: with AC current. As Edison and Westinghouse grapple for who will power the nation, they spark one of the first and greatest corporate feuds in American history, establishing for future Titans of Industry the need to break all the rules.
Rated PG-13 for some disturbing/violent images, and thematic elements
– Contemporary rendering. Even with this entirely being a time period piece taking place during the late 19th century, the resonance of the social commentary bringing forth one of the original war-of-the-words in the media brought to mind this inescapable notion of how little the world’s celebrities have changed when being orchestrated by the real antagonist; the media. This clever irony that the movie deposits stands as one of those aspects of storytelling that not only elaborates at how these two sides were able to respond to one another without the advances of our modern day technology, but also how dangerous consequences are pushed into overdrive if misunderstandings aren’t given the kind of clarity or responsibility that they so urgently deserve from the pen-holders. When a story from a hundred years ago has a conscience within today’s media-dominated world, you’re able to comprehend how little it has evolved even in an age where social media is meant to somehow bring us closer, conjuring up a humorous irony in that we can create something as monumental as electricity, but not a dual-understanding in consideration.
– Responsible. While the film does take more than a few liberties in the factual area of the real life story, the way it values the three men as equals in the realization of the product is meaningful to their lasting legacies. While these three men didn’t work in unison, each of them had an idea or two that was perfected once all of these sole ideas were brought together to bring forth one powerful product. It not only proves how ahead of their time that each of these geniuses were, but also how much they invested in money, time, and mental capacity to win the high stakes war, an angle the film wastes no opportunity in telling. It brings forth an unforeseen vulnerability to each of them trying to make the world a better place, and proves that they weren’t exactly the biggest reapers when it comes to creating something so timeless and revolutionary.
– Thorough production value. The many artists and visionaries behind the scenes are able to teleport us back to the tail end of the 19th century, all because of an unabashed eye for detail that doesn’t spare a cent of its 30 million dollar budget. The backgrounds and set designs seduce us with intoxicatingly high taste, the wardrobe stretches as far as the eye can see, through some crowd shots that mirror consistency, and the visual aesthetic is one that captures the sleek essence of the particular era, thanks to the dependency on natural lighting that resides in each scene. Consdering this is a film that unfortunately sat on the shelf for two years, it brings forth a tragic aspect to what could’ve been with awards consideration, especially since everything here visually captivates us in a way that feels like combines the best of throwback style with the benefit of modern day film techniques, bringing forth a presentation that visually authenticates the lifestyles of the respective characters.
– Various shot composition. This could be considered a bit inconsistent, especially considering the many different angles and techniques of the lens doesn’t establish presence of one continuous director, but for me the abstraction of many different approaches constantly challenged me to adapt with the artistic pulse of the picture. There’s fish-eye lens tricks, unusual character framing, and no shortage of breathtaking establishing shots that bring us in and out of every room with the same kind of dedication to the focused character that makes us feel shoulder-to-shoulder alongside with them. There are so many more variations on the very art of filmmaking that reside within the movie, and the experimentation is one key that, ironically, finds an alluring identity of its own within the ambiguity it expresses with its randomness.
– Conflicted characters. My favorite kind in a movie, especially one depicting real life visionaries of a bygone era. For Edison, you get a sense of the family-first kind of man, but also a perfectionist who often resides on the conflicting side of business and personal relatioships. His arrogance is often his biggest downfall, making mountains out of anthills for the very people he alienates, which eventually lead to this war’s inception, adding layers to the genius we’ve only read about in text books. Likewise, Westinghouse is a business-first presence, whose only mistakes come in the lack of creativity that he expresses within projects bearing his name. He’s kind of an investing silent partner without the silence, and if nothing else, you should be able to distinguish him as a man who will bet the family farm if it means he can stick it to his adversaries. Tesla himself is a bit of a wild card. He’s a dreamer who lacks the kind of conventional wisdom necessary in comprehending what’s feasible, making him often a danger to himself and his finances, for the way he goes all in when creativity strikes. With these three at the helm of the story, you know there will be no shortage of thematic fireworks or personal conflicts, and while the film’s dynamic shot composition is my favorite aspect of the film, these very grounded and human geniuses is a close second.
– Dialogue approach. Director Gomez-Rejon has stated in interviews that he wanted to remove as much of the period piece gimmick from the picture as possible, so that audiences of the modern age could relate and take more away from the character’s intentions, and this is no more prominent than in the film’s language, which feels anything but classical. This could throw some people off considering it breaks the immersive qualities of particular setting, but for me it better approached audiences in a way that constantly kept them engaged to the beats of the smart talk gab that very few of us understand about electricity, and allowed them to better comprehend their movements in the war. There’s nothing time-distinctive or elegant about the deposits, and more importantly, the banter between dual characters bounce freely off of one another without the obviousness of cool emphasis to enhance personalities that aren’t there in reality. It gives the film a feeling of a 1880 narrative that actually takes place in a timeless setting, and makes this approachable for anyone who is or isn’t experienced on the lives of these fascinating people.
– The performances. It’s not exactly the faults of the actors, because after all they’re doing the most they can with the material they’re given, but the monotonous direction from Alfonso limits them from ever reaching the academy recognition that the studio wanted for this movie so terribly. Cumberbatch and Shannon are essentially playing themselves. They add no complexity or transformation to the performances they supplant, wasting an opportunity for them to positively benefit the film in a meaningful way. Hoult is a cartoon living in what should be the most compelling character between this trio dynamic. His demeanor is unintentionally humorous, and affords him the negative aspect of standing out like a sore thumb in a movie that takes no time to invest in him. More on him later. Tom Holland as Edison’s secretary is easily the best performance of the film, proving that the boy wonder can break free of the Spider-Man chains that will typecast him for the first few years of his career. This is obviously the problem, because if a supporting secondary character is the best of the movie in terms of performance depth, then it drops the ball on the many big names who are basically inconsequential to the film’s positivity.
– Rushed storytelling. This story could benefit immensely from an 8 episode series on Netflix or Hulu, but because this is merely 97 minutes of allowed time, the screenplay undercuts the dramatic tension that should be prominent of a movie with this high of stakes. It isn’t, and whether it’s the fault of too much being shoe-horned in to such a brief run time, or even the complete lack of long-term storytelling, which takes something like a significant other passing away, and meanders it in a way to where their partner has forgotten about them by the next scene. The worst part of all, however, is definitely the film’s intro, which gives us pivotal information in the form of on-screen text, which proves it values the backstories of these characters as much as they do the difficulty associated with invention, that the movie spends zero time depicting. I guess since these guys are geniuses these ideas spring to them like a word that rhymes with ‘Play’ in a rhyming poem.
– Tesla arc. Easily the biggest disappointment of the film, as Hollywood continues to undervalue the most important character within this war. This time he’s merely a supporting character in a movie based around Edison Vs Westinghouse, leaving so much of the intelligence and angst of the inventor in the dark. There are long periods of screen time where the character isn’t seen or heard from, and then when he’s brought back into frame he’s a raving lunatic who is definitely in the wrong movie tonally. I’ve said for almost two decades that Hollywood needs a good Nicola Tesla movie, because the man is responsible for many modern inventions and constructs that don’t bear his name, and it’s time that we as a society pay respects to a man who was decades ahead of his competition, but was limited because of the lack of funding that always plagued him.
– Missing pieces. As I previously mentioned, this film sat on the shelf for two years because of the controversy of the Harvey Weinstein bombshell breaking, forcing this film and many others to seek new representation with a new edit in the process, and while there is a cohesive narrative that materializes from the finished product of this feature, the obviousness of some missing pieces certainly seems evident. There are many that I could include, but I will spend my time speaking about one dream sequence that left me with more questions unanswered when the movie was over. Westinghouse continues to have these dreams where he’s a confederate soldier on the field of battle, when a northern soldier holds him at gunpoint. Where the hell did this come from? Why is this even in a completely new edit of the film that has very little mention of it when he is awake. The dream itself doesn’t finish, or even reach a level of clarity that justifies its existence, it just comes into frame three times during the movie, and never actually concludes its arc. If there is a two hour cut of this movie lying around some studio, I would be curious to see it, otherwise, this movie’s jumbled pieces leave me longing for more.
My Grade: 6/10 or C