Monday, November 04, 2019

Moral Exemplars Still Wanted: "The Current War: Director's Cut"

One way of teaching engineering ethics that is less grim than picking through wreckages of failed projects is to portray moral exemplars:  engineers who did the right thing in a critical situation and benefited people thereby.  For example, William LeMessurier, a structural consulting engineer, played a prominent role in determining that the 60-story Boston skyscraper formerly known as the John Hancock Tower was unstable in certain types of wind loading.  The analysis he and his colleagues produced convinced the owners to install millions of dollars' worth of cross-bracing, and the building is still standing today. 

For many generations both in the U. S. and abroad, Thomas Edison was a heroic inventor whose ideas benefited millions.  In 1940, at the height of the inventor-as-hero period in U. S. history, MGM brought out a pair of panegyrics based on his life: "Young Tom Edison" starring Mickey Rooney, and "Edison the Man" with Spencer Tracy.  I must confess that seeing the the former film on TV played a disproportionately large role in my decision to become an electrical engineer, around the age of eight.

However, cinematic heroes today tend to be mainly of the comic-book variety, so when "The Current War:  Director's Cut" was finally released after a two-year delay connected with the fall of Harvey Weinstein, whose production company financed the film, I could hardly wait to see what a present-day director and actors would do with the raw material.

And some of it is pretty raw.  There was no hint in the MGM flicks that Edison was ever anything less than selfless as he enthusiastically searched for innovations that would be boons for humanity.  In particular, there was nothing about the admittedly sordid tricks he pulled to make George Westinghouse's rival AC system look like a threat to public safety, up to and including killing horses and pigs (but not an elephant, as was falsely attributed to him by some confused reports of an elephant's electrocution he filmed at Coney Island in 1903).  But in "The Current War," Benedict Cumberbatch's Edison is no one's idea of a moral exemplar, though he would qualify as perhaps an object of pity.

Just the kind of historic rabbit-trail I took you on about the elephant is one of the problems with the film.  Despite the director's thoughtful inclusion of little side-titles when new characters are introduced (I particularly liked "Nikola Tesla, futurist"), the people I saw the film with all complained that it was very hard to follow.  Although I have made somewhat of an amateur study of Edison, Westinghouse, and that era of the history of technology, I myself had trouble figuring out who was who unless the side-titles were there to help.  In particular, there was an older bewhiskered gent who seemed to be Westinghouse's technical Svengali, but who was only addressed as "Frank."  At the time I guessed it was Frank Sprague, who played a prominent role in early electric tramways.  But later in the film it turned out he was Franklin Pope, an "electrician" (which was what electrical specialists sometimes called themselves back then) who died, not trying to get Westinghouse's electric fan motor to work as the film implied, but in trying to fix a motor-generator installed in the home of his own basement.

As most historical films have to do, this one takes dramatic license with the facts, but stays reasonably close to the main narrative, which is the battle between Edison's first-to-the-market but ultimately unsuccessful DC system, and Westinghouse's cheaper and better alternative of AC, which is still with us today.  The climax of the MGM Spencer Tracy flick, which was Edison's invention of the light bulb, is relegated to a long speech by Cumberbatch at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago.  Westinghouse won the bid to light up the fair, and that triumph symbolized the end of the current war.  Westinghouse and Edison run into each other at the Japanese exhibit, and Westinghouse asks Edison what it felt like to invent the light bulb.  What ensues is perhaps the best piece of classical acting I've seen Cumberbatch do—no special effects, no superhero action, just a man painting a picture of a scene with words that answers the question better than any number of adjectives. 

Cumberbatch seems to be making a career of portraying emotionally peculiar geniuses:  first as the legendary Sherlock Holmes, then as the eccentric mathematician and code expert Alan Turing, and now as Edison.  Critics of the film say he does a good job of portraying our era's idea of the corporate genius:  the Steve-Jobs-type disrupter of the status quo who nevertheless betrays his usually-suppressed emotional life by playing back the voice of his dead wife on his new invention, the phonograph.  Edison's first wife Mary did die in the midst of the current war, which only added to his distress and frustration.  But he didn't let her death slow him down in pursuing his goals by whatever means he thought necessary, including secretly cooperating with a man who thought electrocution would be better than hanging condemned criminals.

I suppose I should have put a spoiler alert on that last paragraph.  But it's unlikely that too many people will see the movie just for the suspense.  To techno-nerds such as myself, who are familiar with many of Edison's lesser-known inventions, the film was a feast of seeing cinematic reproductions of things like the first kinetograph projector (an early form of motion-picture machine) and his electric pen for writing on paper for mimeograph reproduction.  And the film gets some humor out of the Edison family's alleged habit of secretly communicating with each other via Morse-code taps. 

But for the average viewer who has little or no prior knowledge of the era, I'm afraid the film will be a rather confused mish-mosh of mysterious devices, obscure motives, and hard-to-identify characters. A strength of the film is that everything takes place against a lovingly-reproduced CGI background of 1890s America, including a panoramic view of the Columbian Exposition, complete with the original Ferris wheel, that ought to be issued as a two-by-three-foot poster on its own.  I'm not sure what effect the movie will have on eight-year-olds, but don't look for there to be a flurry of young people flocking to be electrical engineers in about ten years.  Actors, maybe, but not engineers.

Sources:  "The Current War:  Director's Cut" was released on October 24, 2019, and stars Benedict Cumberbatch as Thomas Edison.  I referred to a review of the film posted at for details of the delayed release, and also Wikipedia information concerning the 1903 elephant electrocution of Topsy.

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