April 4th 2020

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY The world has changed: Now for the new order

FAMILY AND SOCIETY Move to curtail underage online porn epidemic

CANBERRA OBSERVED ScoMo's delicate balancing act in extraordinary times

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Time and timing are crucial to Cardinal Pell's appeal by Peter Westmore

NEW ZEALAND Political divisions polarise across the Ditch

NEW ZEALAND Victorian Road Map smooths way of NZ anti-life clique to abortion 'reform'

FREE SPEECH Intolerance brigade at UQ attacks professor of Law

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Victoria lifts moratorium of gas exploration

CHINESE HISTORY The Soong Dynasty: Three sisters who rules China

LAW AND SOCIETY Guilt by accusation: The kangaroos are roaming freely through Australia's legal system

GENDER POLITICS Dr Quentin Van Meter's Australian talk is opening eyes in the U.S.

INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS Australia is not safe in the borderless globalised world

SHOPPING AND SOCIETY The Ubermensch in the aisles

MUSIC We seem to have lost the point of counterpoint

CINEMA The Current War: Industrial miracle workers

BOOK REVIEW A dark trade that continues unabated worldwide

EBOOK READ THIS Both sides to this old story



NATIONAL AFFAIRS Use detention centres to help deal with covid19 epidemic

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Justice at last: Cardinal Pell set free

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The Current War: Industrial miracle workers

by Symeon J. Thompson

News Weekly, April 4, 2020

Less a typical historical biopic and more an impressionistic cinematic essay, The Current War is a stunning introduction to an industrial duel that set the stage for the modern, technological era. It concerns the seemingly hair-splitting debate over what sort of current should be used to produce and transmit electricity but, like all such debates, it is one with far-reaching ramifications for industry and urban design.

More, it delves into the character of three of the giants of technological innovation – Thomas Alva Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch), George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon), and Nikola Tesla (Nicholas Hoult).

After inventing – or rather perfecting – the incandescent light bulb, Edison has gone on to build and patent a system of power generation that he intends to use to power light and industry throughout the United States. This system of direct current (DC) is manageable and controllable but has such a short reach that the only way to light up a city is to have several large power plants with direct copper cabling between them.

Westinghouse, industrialist and inventor of the air brake system used by roughly all trains, admires Edison but thinks he should have gone with alternating current (AC) instead. AC systems have vast reach, allowing one power plant to transmit electricity along great distances as long as there are transformers along the way. However, AC operates at much higher voltage, making it more dangerous and more difficult to apply to industry.

The brilliant, dandified and eccentric Tesla is an advocate of AC. A Serbian immigrant, his genius matches Edison’s, but his people skills are even worse. Tesla is more than an inventor or an industrialist. He is a visionary whose ideas remain so advanced even now that he’s a favourite figure of science fiction and alternate history.

Scored, shot and edited to echo the rat-a-tat of the telegraph or the propulsion of the steam engine, the film proceeds at a cracking pace and an intelligence that expects the audience to keep up. This is not a painstaking documentary, but a series of sketches to illuminate the driving forces of the story.

At its heart lies the question: what really runs the world? Especially the world of the future? For Westinghouse and Edison, the answer is current; be it AC or DC, they see electricity as the thing that will change everything.

For financiers like Edison’s main backer, the civic-minded J.P. Morgan (Matthew Macfadyen), it is currency that runs the world – even if that exact line is attributed to one of Tesla’s backers, who rips him off. But for Tesla, it is the ideas that matter, because they will last after all that is now has faded away.

This ties in with the other great debate of the film: what is some-thing worth? For the moneymen, it is what someone is willing to pay for it, but for Westinghouse it is what it contributes. And Westinghouse was the epitome of a good employer, giving his men a five-day workweek, and moving them between his companies rather than laying them off.

Edison’s focus is the act of invention, with his lab resembling a Silicon Valley startup, all energy and commitment. But with it comes the workaholism that takes him away from his beloved family, and his wife Mary (Tuppence Middleton), who died far too young. With this comes a darker focus, a focus on his name, his status, and his ownership.

Edison is a showman whose obsessions with his public image and what he sees as belonging to him override his good judgement. The film shows how sensitive Edison was to perceived slights and thefts and how ruthless he could be to get his way.

Other stories from his life illustrate this even more abundantly. He was not satisfied to be the “Wizard of Menlo Park”: he had to ensure no one could take it away from him.

Their future – our present – belongs to all three men. Tesla with his imagination and ideals; Edison with his persistence and drive; Westinghouse with his practicality. But also to all those others who did their bit. Ultimately, their combined contributions fashioned the world of miracles in which we live, a world that will stand if we do our bit too.

Symeon J. Thompson is a member of the Film Critics’ Circle of Australia (FCCA).

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April 4, 2018, 6:45 pm