Few people in our modern switched-on, logged-in, high-powered planet can get their minds around the concept of a world without electricity. But that’s what we had until the sooty, gas-lit late 19th century, when a pair of industrial visionaries, along with a brilliant Serbian-American inventor, became engaged in a charged battle to literally light up the world.
Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch, affecting a credible American accent) advocated a distance-limited, direct-current system, while charismatic industrialist George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon, very effective in, for him, a relatively restrained role) backed a farther-reaching but potentially more dangerous alternating-current scheme. Nicola Tesla, who at times worked for both men, is well portrayed by Nicholas Hoult.
Thanks to the fine acting and elegant cinematography by Chung-hoon Chung, this movie, while not exactly gripping, is more engaging than you might expect from a story about corporate strategy, and edifying in the bargain. A drawback is a totally superfluous subplot about how both men contributed, perhaps unwittingly, to one of electricity’s first uses: the electric chair as a more “humane” alternative to hanging. This becomes especially heavy-handed and egregious in the final scenes.