Discussion on 'Current War' Film Highlights Historic Edison Vs. Westinghouse Struggle

Dec 26, 2019

To this day, more Americans associate Thomas Edison with electricity than they do George Westinghouse.

President's Lecture: War of the Currents: 3 p.m. Mon., Dec. 30. Heinz History Center, 1212 Smallman St., Strip District

But that’s not only ahistorical, as Michael Mitnick notes, it obscures a fascinating episode in the history of industrialization.

Mitnick wrote the screenplay for “The Current War,” the recent feature film that dramatizes the 1880s struggle between Edison and Westinghouse over how the newly harnessed power of electricity would be delivered to homes and workplaces. Basically, Edison favored direct current, while Westinghouse pushed alternating current. DC was more expensive to use, but as “Current War” depicts, Edison’s smear campaign against AC – and, by extension, Westinghouse – for a while made it uncertain which system would prevail.

Pittsburgh-area native Michael Mitnick wrote the screenplay for "The Current War."
Credit Courtesy of Heinz History Center

While Westinghouse was based in Pittsburgh at the time – he founded and headquartered his Westinghouse Corp. here – that’s not the film’s only local connection. Mitnick himself grew up here and graduated from Fox Chapel Area High School. And he’ll visit Monday, along with director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, and co-producer Jayne Sullivan. The three filmmakers will join Heinz History Center president and CEO Andy Masich for a panel discussion and the film, its subject matter, and the challenges of making cinema out of history.

Mitnick’s own Pittsburgh bona fides include working, as a high school student, for WQED during the final days of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” circa 2000-01. (He said he ran into Fred Rogers often, and frequently ate lunch on the show’s set.) But Mitnick was an adult before he heard the story of how Pittsburgh-based Westinghouse fought Edison. When he finally did, he attempted to tell the story as a stage play and even a musical.

That was more than a decade ago, when Mitnick was studying playwriting at Yale University. The screenplay that became “The Current War” floated around for years, but drew real attention from producers only after it landed on Hollywood’s “Black List” of most-liked unproduced scripts.

The film, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Edison and Michael Shannon as Westinghouse, premiered more than two years ago, at the Toronto International Film Festival. (It was set to be distributed by The Weinstein Company, but was shelved after sexual-abuse allegations against Harvey Weinstein; another company eventually secured the rights.)

One of Mitnick’s goals was to dispel the myth that electrical distribution just sort of happened the way it did, as the result of mere laboratory testing.

“In fact it was an epic battle, a battle that was about millions and millions and millions of dollars, about how the infrastructure of the world would be wired. About how technology would be set up for the coming century,” said Mitnick, by phone from his home, in Brooklyn.

The material’s pretty juicy at times. Edison, for instance, attempted to smear “Westinghouse current” as dangerous, going so far as to anonymously enter the electric-chair business and then link Westinghouse’s name to that fearful contraption. (As the film illustrates, numerous animals were electrocuted by way of testing or publicity, including a circus elephant.)

Spoiler alert: Though Edison remains linked to electricity because of achievements like his light bulb innovations, it's Westinghouse's AC that continues to flow through our outlets.

It’s a complex story involving Edison and Westinghouse as well as Nikola Tesla, the 1893 World's Fair, in Chicago, and other historical figures and landmarks. Mitnick said he strove to make the film as accurate as the art form allowed.

“It’s not a documentary, so I have to dramatize it, [but] if I take too many liberties, people including me have issues, because you sort of say, ‘What’s the point, this is a false history of what happened?’” he said.

Pittsburgh is present in the film as a setting -- but also, Mitnick says, in the person of Westinghouse, who lived here much of his life and was known, in the era of robber barons, as not only a great inventor but also a humane employer.

“I think Pittsburgh and the spirit of Pittsburgh is throughout the entire movie, and especially the character of George Westinghouse,” he said.

Monday’s ticketed panel discussion does not include a screening of “The Current War,” though clips might be shown. The other participating filmmakers also have Pittsburgh connections: Gomez-Rejon directed, and Sullivan co-produced, “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” the Pittsburgh-shot adaptation of the Jesse Andrews novel.

The event starts at 3 p.m. Ticket information is here.