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What parents need to know
Parents need to know that The Current War: Director's Cut is a historical drama about Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse's fierce competition to develop the electrical system that would power the world. Casting actors associated with superheroes -- Benedict Cumberbatch (Dr. Strange), Tom Holland (Spider-Man), Michael Shannon (Superman nemesis General Zod), and Nicholas Hoult (Beast from X-Men) -- may get kids' attention. But this film focuses less on the bright minds and more on the dark sides of two great American inventors, particularly the legendary Edison. He's shown to be rude, petty, arrogant, and willing to stop at nothing -- including electrocuting animals -- to best his opponent. The creation of the electric chair also takes up a lot of screen time; there's discussion of a horrific execution, as well as an accidental death, a shooting, and someone shown covered in blood. While the movie may inspire discussion about business ethics (and characters do demonstrate both curiosity and perseverance), it's not as inspirational as parents might hope when it comes to spurring kids to make their own creations a reality. Rather, by turning a big hero into a small man, it may be a deterrent. Edison smokes cigars throughout and has a temper. Strong language includes "goddamn," and there's some kissing/affection between a married couple.
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What's the story?
THE CURRENT WAR: DIRECTOR'S CUT recounts the race between Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon) to bring electricity to America. The two men, both principled and passionate, have wildly different personalities, approaches, and interpretations of the best means to power the country. As they compete for contracts across America's grid, will their integrity stay intact?
Is it any good?
This film isn't as electric as the power titans it portrays, but it's still an informative look at how convenient, easy access to power and light became something many people take for granted. At the time, the debate among leaders of major metropolitan areas was whether to power their cities with Edison's pricier, less powerful, but theoretically safer direct current or Westinghouse's cheaper, more efficient, and farther-reaching alternating current. To turn the tide his way, the movie shows Edison engaging in a nasty misinformation campaign to portray Westinghouse's system as dangerous. While the story is historically accurate, it also highlights poor behavior on the part of someone who's often portrayed as an inspirational American hero. Given that this is the only movie about Edison -- arguably the greatest inventor of the 19th century -- that's been made since 1940, there's no doubt that students will seek it out. Parents should know that it brings to light the darker side of his personality -- including acts of cruelty against animals that are unacceptable today.
This is revisionist history in an honest sense: trying to replace legend by educating on fact, trying to right a wrong. The Current War (which was executive-produced by Martin Scorcese) portrays largely forgotten inventor Westinghouse as a good man with admirable integrity and ethics, who, instead of the the fame that fueled Edison, sought a legacy of good, impactful deeds to better the world. The best use of this drama, when it comes to kids, is to examine the way the men bend their principles and ethics in an effort to succeed. No doubt, each believed his own system was best. But how do you persuade others to see that? And how does personal history play into that (Edison snubbed Westinghouse in a humiliating way; later, Edison mistakenly believes Westinghouse stole his ideas). When someone is fighting dirty, do you go low -- or high? And when you see an up and comer in the mix, as happened with Tesla, do you berate him to keep him below you or embrace him and elevate his ideas and talents? The Current War would be a great pick for debate in a business ethics class, but for kids just trying to navigate the schoolyard, it may be a bit much.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the way we choose to depict history in the media. What's the impact of showing poor behavior by someone who's been lionized for making positive contributions to the world? Why might people be driven to "correct history"?
Talk about the meaning of integrity. Do you think the three inventors shared that quality? How did they bend their principles? Both Edison and Westinghouse felt that the other had wronged them -- does that justify their actions? Do you feel one's actions were worse than the other's? Why or why not?
How do Edison, Westinghouse, and Tesla exemplify curiosity and perseverance? Could their inventions have been realized without those qualities? What obstacles were in their way? Why are those important character traits?
What do you think of how Edison treated people, including Tesla, Westinghouse, and financier J.P. Morgan? Society often excuses misconduct in geniuses and leaders of industry. Why do you think that is? Is there a solution?
What is the Eighth Amendment? No one in the movie, not even a humane society leader, takes issue with Edison electrocuting animals to show the potential danger of alternating current. What does that tell you about how times have changed? Is there anything society deems acceptable now that you think future generations will find unethical?
- In theaters: October 25, 2019
- On DVD or streaming: March 31, 2020
- Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Shannon, Nicholas Hoult
- Director: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon
- Studio: 101 Studios
- Genre: Drama
- Topics: History, Science and Nature
- Character strengths: Curiosity, Perseverance
- Run time: 107 minutes
- MPAA rating: PG-13
- MPAA explanation: some violent content and thematic elements
- Last updated: March 30, 2020
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