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Arts & Life

The War Behind 'The Current War'


In the new movie "The Current War: Director's Cut," titans of industry clash to bring power - electric power - to the people. Thomas Edison is played by Benedict Cumberbatch.


BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH: (As Thomas Edison) His current kills people.

TOM HOLLAND: (As Samuel Insull) Only because you said it will.

SIMON: "The Current War" was one of Harvey Weinstein's last films before he was ousted from public life after numerous women stepped forward to accuse him of years of sexual misconduct. And as NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports, the film almost didn't get released at all.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: Russian filmmaker Timur Bekmambetov is best known for making horror films. But when he read about the so-called war of the currents, he knew he needed to make the movie. He comes from a family of electrical engineers.

TIMUR BEKMAMBETOV: It's a story about the responsibility of creators.

BLAIR: Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon grew up in Laredo, Texas. He directed the indie film "Me, Earl And The Dying Girl" (ph). He says the rivalry between Edison and Westinghouse reads like a 19th century version of Steve Jobs versus Bill Gates.

ALFONSO GOMEZ-REJON: And so much about ego and humility and invention and responsibility.

BLAIR: Ego, humility, invention and responsibility.

Thomas Edison was an obsessive tinkerer who's credited with inventing the phonograph and one of the first motion picture devices. He could also be difficult, a combination of twinkling charm and bruising imperiousness, writes Edison biographer Edmund Morris. George Westinghouse was a savvy businessman and engineer. He invented a railroad air brake that made trains safer. A big man with 100,000 horsepower inside him, begins his New York Times obituary from 1904.


MICHAEL SHANNON: (As George Westinghouse) You want to be remembered, it's simple. Shoot a president. But if you prefer to have what I call a legacy, you leave the world a better place than you found it.

BLAIR: This is an epic, at times complex, story that covers history, science, even ethical dilemmas around the invention of the electric chair. Timur Bekmambetov thought it was just the kind of movie Harvey Weinstein would take on. Weinstein had championed his work in the past and produced one of his movies, so Bekmambetov asked him if he would produce "The Current War."

BEKMAMBETOV: Then he immediately said yes and helped a lot to cast the movie and to finance the movie and, unfortunately, was very, very close to destroy the movie.

BLAIR: The first time "The Current War" was shown in public was at the Toronto Film Festival in September 2017. But director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon says they screened a version Weinstein wanted, not him.

GOMEZ-REJON: We rushed to show a work in progress that was not my vision for the story, and then we were reviewed as a finished film. And that kind of became a reality I was - that became very difficult to live with.

BLAIR: After the bad reviews at Toronto, things got worse. Just weeks later, the explosive allegations against Weinstein hit the news. Here's CNN.


WOLF BLITZER: Disturbing new accusations against the movie mogul Harvey Weinstein. More stars are coming forward, some accusing him of sexual assault.

BLAIR: Harvey Weinstein denies the allegations. At the time, The Weinstein Company had multiple film and TV projects in development. Almost immediately, they were in limbo.

GOMEZ-REJON: It was absolute, total confusion because, overnight, you heard nothing from the top anymore.

BLAIR: Then they learned that The Weinstein Company was looking for a distributor to release Weinstein's cut. And here's where the story takes a turn in favor of the director. Knowing Harvey Weinstein could be difficult, Gomez-Rejon's agent had included a clause in his contract with Weinstein that gave Martin Scorsese the final cut of the film.

GOMEZ-REJON: So he put a clause in my contract that said, if you and Harvey could never come to terms with what a final cut of the film is, that Scorsese, who was a mentor of mine, would have final cut at that point.

ELSA RAMO: Final cut is the most sensitive, complex discussion that one has, particularly around independent film.

BLAIR: Elsa Ramo is an entertainment attorney who's negotiated hundreds of movie contracts. She says there are often competing interests between directors, producers and financiers over who gets final cut. She calls Gomez-Rejon's clause allowing Scorsese final cut genius.

RAMO: The idea of putting in sort of the godfather of all movies to do the final signoff makes a lot of logical sense. You know, perhaps it was at a time when Harvey Weinstein thought his hands were clean. But generally, one does not hand the keys to the kingdom to someone unless there's almost an absolute certainty that things will turn out the way that you want them to.

BLAIR: Things often don't turn out the way you want them to in business, in art, in life. Gomez-Rejon says at least with "The Current War: Director's Cut," it's his work and his vision.

GOMEZ-REJON: If it fails, it's - you have no one to blame but yourself. And there's a freedom to that, too.

BLAIR: In the credits for "The Current War: Director's Cut," there's no mention of Harvey Weinstein.

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.