Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Shannon, Nicholas Hoult, Tom Holland, Katherine Waterston, Tuppence Middleton, Simon Manyonda, Matthew Macfadyen
OUR RATING: ★★★☆☆
Historical bio-drama directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon which tells the story of the cutthroat competition between the greatest inventors of the industrial age over whose electrical system would power the new century. Backed by J.P. Morgan, Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) is on the verge of creating a marketable and sustainable electricity system for the first time in history. But George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon), aided by Nikola Tesla (Nicholas Hoult), notice a fatal flaws in Edison’s direct current design, which ignites a war of currents between these two rivals.
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Our Favorite Quotes:'Sometimes we have to work outside of the rules to get what's right.' - Bourke Cockran (The Current War) Click To Tweet 'Only that which isn't in the physical realm and reaches in both directions can be eternal. Our ideas. They are what we leave behind. And only they are what can push us forward.' - Nikola Tesla (The Current War) Click To Tweet
Thomas Edison: Boys!
[the lightbulbs are all lit as Edison unveils his invention]
Thomas Edison: I hope you brought your checkbooks.
Maurice Manesburg: Mr. Westinghouse, I saw in The World Mr. Edison’s new electric system is significantly cheaper than gas. Does that keep you up at night?
George Westinghouse: There’s always more to see.
George Westinghouse: Edison says he’s months away from lighting up the world.
Franklin Pope: It is impressive, but trust me, it’s ten years away from being practical.
George Westinghouse: The papers make it sound as though this is something different. A miracle. As if you started to levitate off the carpet. I’d love to meet him. Could you arrange it?
Franklin Pope: It’s been several years…
George Westinghouse: A dinner. Comfortable. Elegant. Substantive.
Franklin Pope: Edison can’t be bothered to tie his shoes, let alone attend a social event.
George Westinghouse: Perhaps you’re right. But try anyway.
[referring to Edison]
Franklin Pope: Don’t let him agitate you. This is how he is. Before he was a wizard, I let him live in my basement. My wife wouldn’t have him at the table with us unless he cleaned himself. And, boy, given the ultimatum, the man ate alone.
George Westinghouse: How does he work?
Franklin Pope: You want to know his secret? He engineers his own reality, and he looks for needles in haystacks.
George Westinghouse: But how does he know there’s a needle in the hay to begin with?
Franklin Pope: He doesn’t. Neither do you. But he’s so determined not to be the second person to find it, that he’ll go stalk by stalk on a what-do-you-know. I will say one good thing about him. He could be the richest man on earth, but he doesn’t give a damn about money.
George Westinghouse: What does he give a damn about?
[Morgan calls Edison]
J.P. Morgan: You want half a million dollars, you make me something with your name on it that I can sell to General Sherman.
Thomas Edison: Counteroffer. How about I don’t give you what you want, but you give me everything I want?
[ends the call]
Thomas Edison: We are going to be big, big, big!
[addressing the crowd at the New York Stock Exchange]
Thomas Edison: Look, I’ve got to be honest. This might not work. Conventional wisdom has it, if you think you’re going to fall flat on your face, better not do it in front of a crowd.
[the crowd laughs]
Thomas Edison: Tonight, things could change. I hope they do. And if they do, they’ll change there, and there.
[points to the two buildings]
Thomas Edison: My boys and I caught in a jar what before now has only flashed across the night sky. What say we unscrew the lid and see what happens?
[the crowd cheers]
[referring to Westinghouse]
Thomas Edison: How did he get the bulbs?
[his team is silent]
Thomas Edison: What a roaring silence from the brightest minds of America.
Lewis Latimer: He’s using Hiram’s design.
Thomas Edison: Which Hiram stole from me! Sue him.
Lewis Latimer: We did. The court upheld his patent.
Thomas Edison: Look, Westinghouse will never have a complete system. He can’t even power a sewing machine.
Nikola Tesla: But I can solve that problem. Instead of again converting the currents to work with a commutator, I would pass alternating current differing in phase through two or more energizing circuits.
Thomas Edison: You’re supposed to be working on commutators with DC dynamos.
Nikola Tesla: Well, I have. Look, I have done everything you have asked, but you are making a mistake.
Thomas Edison: What?
Nikola Tesla: Direct current may be fine for cities when the buildings are close together, but most of your country is empty spaces. Only high voltage can span the distance. You are not thinking longterm. This technology is within your grasp. I can build you an efficient motor.
Thomas Edison: Have you tried it?
Nikola Tesla: No. Look, in my head, it is nearly completed.
Thomas Edison: Men claim to have heads full of sonnets and symphonies, but their only problem seems to be they can’t quite write it down.
Nikola Tesla: Let me try.
Thomas Edison: No. Because I can’t start again! I got orders from Michigan. I got a roomful of press waiting for me. Do what you were hired to do.
Nikola Tesla: So you will not honor your word about the remuneration?
Thomas Edison: What are you talking about?
Nikola Tesla: Well, you said fifty thousand dollars. Are you unhappy with my contributions?
Thomas Edison: I’m not paying you fifty thousand dollars. That was a joke.
Thomas Edison: We scoured the earth, years and years, trying thousands, ten thousand different combinations. Then George Westinghouse saw how I did it and put on a pirate hat. You get vultures in every venture, but you’ve just got to keep them away.
Reporter: So this is just how it works?
Thomas Edison: Map makers include mistakes in their work to see if anyone else is copying them. I don’t have that luxury. I can’t invent streets to lead the world down. Otherwise we all end up in the dark.
Thomas Edison: Did I mention that his system’s lethal? I mean, you reach out and touch a doorknob, or a rail, and, well, you become the circuit.
Reporter: Just to be clear on that point.
Thomas Edison: Well, you die. With DC current, you can reach out and touch anything at any stage of the line with your bare hands. It’s safe. It works. And it bears the name of Edison, so it’s pretty. Our government has been trying for some time now to get me to invent a weapon, but I won’t use this brain to invent anything that hurts people. For that, you can shop in Pittsburgh.
Reporter #1: So you say Westinghouse wants to hurt people?
Thomas Edison: No. I can’t say that. But you can.
[referring to Edison]
Marguerite Westinghouse: This is what he thinks of you. Issue a statement to the papers today. Refute his charges.
George Westinghouse: I’m not going to engage with this. We have the better system. That speaks loudest.
Womack: I’m sorry. Don’t you realize you’re being fired here?
Nikola Tesla: No. Please, let me work through what I have in my head. I will make you the greatest provider of electrical power in the world. Better than Edison. I’m so close. Just a few months.
Womack: You drop in here like you’re from Neptune, like you got a great vision of the future no one understands but you.
[he touches something on Telsa’s desk]
Nikola Tesla: No, please don’t touch.
Womack: But you’re just an immigrant. Head full of notions, looking for a handout. You’re not Edison. There’s only one Edison. That’s why he’s in. There’s millions of you. Big ideas, but you can’t see the real force that moves things. And it’s not AC-DC, it’s not currents. It’s currency. And that’s the only motor I’m interested in.
Nikola Tesla: Then these patents belong to the Tesla Electric Light Company.
Womack: This is now the Union Electric and Manufacturing Company, and I own everything in this office. Patents, designs, engineers, all mine. There’s never going to be anything named Tesla ever again. You take your notions, and go back where you came from.
Man: So what’s your trade?
Nikola Tesla: Inventor. I fix problems for idiots.
Franklin Pope: George, he’s playing dirty. You can too.
George Westinghouse: Mm. You know, when I was a boy, my father tried to whip me with a branch. But after the first hit, it broke into three little pieces. And we just stood there, looking at this shattered stick on the ground. And then I noticed there was a leather strap hanging on the wall, so I pointed to it and said, “Look. That’s the better one.” And he stopped. I can take a beating, but I have no patience for shoddy craftsmanship.
[after Pope dies in an electrical accident; to reporters]
Thomas Edison: Today, I am filled less with grief than anger, because what happened could’ve been avoided. Hear me now as you have never heard me before. As I breathe, as long as Westinghouse stays in business, more people will die.
J.P. Morgan: Now, I know that you, uh, you wish Edison to quiet down. So let me combine your companies. Let me clean up the mess.
George Westinghouse: You really think Westinghouse Electric is worth five million?
J.P. Morgan: The value of something is the highest number someone else is willing to pay.
George Westinghouse: But eight hundred men will lose their livelihoods.
J.P. Morgan: I will keep your workers. I will not make the same promise for your five-day work week.
George Westinghouse: Mm.
J.P. Morgan: It seems like you’re amenable.
George Westinghouse: Mm. Which current will you use?
J.P. Morgan: Whichever Edison selects, I suppose.
George Westinghouse: We’re overextended, Marguerite. There’s no shame in selling. What I was always after was to partner with Edison, and I have the chance to do that now. I mean, we have no motor, so we’re a train into a mountainside anyway. It’s impossible.
Marguerite Westinghouse: I thought impossible wasn’t a word in your vocabulary.
George Westinghouse: I am dissolving Westinghouse Electric. The proceeds will go to preserve our other failing enterprises, and time itself will mend Edison’s mistakes.
Marguerite Westinghouse: You are not a captain who changes his course with the sea.
George Westinghouse: We are not on a course! We’re drowning! This whole thing is costing us a fortune!
Marguerite Westinghouse: You don’t care about money.
George Westinghouse: A fortune!
Marguerite Westinghouse: I lived in your parents house while you went door to door. Do you want people saying you stand for everything you don’t? Using your last name as a verb?
George Westinghouse: Well, how exactly do you suggest I correct that, dear? I have you, and I had Frank. That’s it. I loved the man. This is really nothing but a sensible business decision.
Marguerite Westinghouse: George…
George Westinghouse: That’s all. That’s all.
[Westinghouse turns and starts to walk away]
Marguerite Westinghouse: Say what you will about George Westinghouse, he sure is nice.
Bourke Cockran: If you’re going to take your shot, now is the last time to fire. Sometimes we have to work outside of the rules to get what’s right. It would be nice if we didn’t have to.
George Westinghouse: Wouldn’t it?
[over the phone]
Thomas Edison: Where did you get that?
George Westinghouse: I’m sending them to the paper.
Thomas Edison: Those letters are stolen. You can’t publish them.
George Westinghouse: Why not?
Thomas Edison: Because they’re private correspondences.
George Westinghouse: Mr. Edison, if you say something about me or my company again, I would ask that you tell the truth. That would be the decent thing to do. Wouldn’t it?
Thomas Edison: What?
Samuel Insull: It’s not my place to say.
Thomas Edison: Say it.
Samuel Insull: You said you’d never build a device that would kill anyone.
Thomas Edison: I make something impossible, and they rip it away from me, so I do it again, and they do it again. And again. And again. This isn’t like everything else. This is everything else. Our future is not going to be paved with bricks, but with copper. Automation, transportation, communication, and the man that controls that current controls that future.
Samuel Insull: But you know Westinghouse is right. You don’t actually believe that a few accidents rule out the viability of his current. You just don’t want to lose.
Thomas Edison: I have merely amplified what no one else was willing to take seriously.
Samuel Insull: No, what you did was run him over with a twelve ton train!
Thomas Edison: Oh, well, he’s the one that’s supposed to only make brakes, so, who’s to blame here?
Samuel Insull: Switch tonight, and you win.
Thomas Edison: His current kills people!
Samuel Insull: Only because you said it will!
Thomas Edison: Listen, I either stop complaining about the scavengers in my garden, or build a wall so damn high that people will never even dare to scale it.
Samuel Insull: You are the smartest man I know. Beyond building miracles out of thin air, I was most impressed by your principles. You didn’t invent the incandescent. People just think you did.
Thomas Edison: Let me welcome you to the reality of how things come into existence. We all contribute. That’s what invention is. The salt. The grain. The heat. The heart. Only one man makes the bread rise. That’s the one that puts it all together, and makes it taste so damn good that people will go out there, and hand over their hard-won dollars to buy it.
Samuel Insull: Mr. Edison, I want you to succeed. I do. But you have to switch tonight, or you’ll die as PT Barnum rather than Sir Isaac Newton.
[at Columbia College]
Francis Upton: Though he may be unfamiliar to you, his studies have demonstrated an understanding of electrical matters unlike anyone I have ever known, with respect to the assembled. Gentlemen and lady, Nikola Tesla.
Gentleman: Mr. Tesla, have you actually built the motor to test your theories?
Nikola Tesla: But they are not theories. No, I have not built it.
Gentleman: But that would prove your beliefs.
Nikola Tesla: But they are not beliefs, and it is absolutely immaterial to me whether I run the motor in my mind, or in a shop, for I built it already in my imagination. It’s perfect.
Gentleman: Are you serious?
Nikola Tesla: Almost always.
[referring to Tesla’s design]
George Westinghouse: This is it?
Nikola Tesla: It’s Niagara Falls.
George Westinghouse: Yeah.
Nikola Tesla: And ever since my school days, I have pictured in my imagination a big wheel spinning out lightning. Did you know that when I first came to this country, I worked for Mr. Edison?
George Westinghouse: I did not.
Nikola Tesla: Tea?
George Westinghouse: Sure.
Nikola Tesla: I fixed two of his DC generators in one night, and he called me a damn good man. So why did he not treat me that way? I quit. Tried my own company and was deceived. Who was I? Some immigrant. So I took the only job I could find, digging a ditch. The men laughed at my fine clothes, but at the end of the day, I had two dollars.
George Westinghouse: What was the ditch to be used for?
Nikola Tesla: Edison Electric. It felt like digging my own grave.
Nikola Tesla: If Mr. Edison succeeds, he will set us back so far, we may never recover. The Fair must be alternating. It must be my motor. I have watched as the world talks of Chicago as a symbol, a City of Light. All cities will have light in your lifetime, but harnessing the power of Niagara, that is to see our future.
George Westinghouse: The Falls? I’m here to talk about Chicago.
Nikola Tesla: Think beyond Chicago. Energy is as fundamental as food, as water, as air. You cannot say that only those with money can eat, or can breathe. Yes, the Falls will light up the Eastern Seaboard. Yes, there is a great fortune to be made, and I covet a very nice walking stick I saw on 63rd and Madison, but Niagara is the proof that one day we may detach power from profit. That is how you truly win.
George Westinghouse: Hm.
Nikola Tesla: How do I know you will not cheat me?
George Westinghouse: Well, you don’t. But the fact is, Mr. Tesla, I need your motor. I may be able to light up the Fair, but I still can’t move a machine. If we cannot reach an agreement today, my company will die right here in your hotel room. But if it does perish, so might your dream of harnessing power from Niagara. So, do we have a deal?
Nikola Tesla: Five thousand.
[Westinghouse looks at Tesla]
Nikola Tesla: One thousand.
George Westinghouse: I’ll give you two dollars and fifty cents, per horsepower. I’m no genius myself, but that should be millions.
J.P. Morgan: So, here’s what’s happening. I am merging Edison Electric with some of the other ankle-biters. You are out. You know why. And I’m happy to tell you, if you require this moment to be even more unpleasant. You will receive stock, and you will retain a seat on the board.
Thomas Edison: Who’s going to present? You?
J.P. Morgan: Good God, no.
Thomas Edison: You tell me now?
J.P. Morgan: I was here. I thought you deserved to hear it face to face.
Thomas Edison: No, you didn’t. You just wanted to waste my time, and get me to sign autographs for children. What are you going to call it then?
J.P. Morgan: That’s your concern?
Thomas Edison: Edison Electric. It has to be. Edison and electricity are synonymous, Morgan.
J.P. Morgan: I do not attach a losing name to a fledgling enterprise. Now that your letters have leaked, you’ve lost credibility.
Thomas Edison: So what is it?
J.P. Morgan: The name?
Thomas Edison: Yes, the goddamn name!
J.P. Morgan: The contract just says General Electric, but I’ll think of something. I can be creative too.
[tutoring Samuel on how to present for the committee for World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago]
Thomas Edison: Listen closely. Focus on the quality of the light. I don’t care what the courts say. Westinghouse ripped off my bulbs, and the good news for you is he did a terrible job. They are outdoor bulbs, so they have a life of about two hours. So focus on the replacement time. Talk about the superiority of ours, as if there’s no competition. Use terms like “standard”, “purest”, and “the most beautiful light”, et cetera. Find out what kind of men they are. There are really only two types. The first believe themselves to be practical, but they’re secret dreamers. They’re the ones who’ll take the risks. The second, well, they’ll smile, and thank you for the show, but they’ll vote with their wallets. Unless Westinghouse is mortgaging everything he’s worth on this bid, Morgan has you in good stead with the money men. So your only real job is to look the dreamers in the eye and promise them magic. Now, explain back to me everything that you remember about a parallel and series of electric circuits using none of the words I just said.
[we see Samuel presenting in front of the committee]
Samuel Insull: Should you choose Westinghouse, then, yes, there is a possibility you’ll be putting in jeopardy the lives of twenty-eight million people. Even if Westinghouse were to make even the smallest of errors, unintentional, of course. A visiting politician, a wife, even a seven year-old girl may lean against a lamppost, and be struck dead, immediately.
Committee Member #1: There you have it. Mr. Westinghouse’s brand of electricity is fatal. Thank you, Mr. Insull.
Samuel Insull: Just to be clear, sir, any electrical current over two hundred milliamperes can be deadly.
Committee Member #2: Even yours?
[at World’s Columbian Exposition Westinghouse and Edison meet]
Thomas Edison: Don’t you think a fence is a unique creation? Your neighbor puts one up, and suddenly one becomes two. You also have a fence. There’s only one problem. You see, one person on one side of the fence designed it, one person on one side built it, and one person paid for it, and yet the other person received a fine free fence.
George Westinghouse: I didn’t take your ideas.
George Westinghouse: You know, I was wondering about one thing.
Thomas Edison: Oh, I’m sure there were many.
George Westinghouse: I was going to invite you to dinner, again, but I suppose now is as good a time as any.
Thomas Edison: You want to know what was in the thirteen hour bulb?
George Westinghouse: I know how it works.
Thomas Edison: Yeah, I know you do.
George Westinghouse: I only wondered what it felt like.
Thomas Edison: Pardon?
George Westinghouse: The bulb. When you knew. What was the feeling in that moment?
Thomas Edison: I can’t tell you. I mean, It’s impossible to describe the feeling because it was impossible. Years of work, and ten thousand different filaments. When the thread went in the bulb, as usual, we placed our bets, the generator sputtered to life, and the ball began to glow, we didn’t expect anything but another failure. Then something started to happen. See, our best filament only lasted ten minutes, and this fluke was rounding twenty. So people started to chatter. And thirty minutes, forty minutes, an hour, two hours. Then people started to shout. And remember, we hadn’t got past ten minutes. The boys were climbing up the walls, tearing their hair out. Because it was impossible. Seven hours. Eight hours. Nine. We were silent when we hit ten. Just sat around that glowing bubble, drunk on our own magic, staring at it like it, I don’t know, like it was the baby Jesus playing Mozart. After thirteen and a half hours, the glass cracked, and I knew it. The world would never be the same. I’m working on something now, something so new that people will forget that my name was ever associated with electricity.
George Westinghouse: I wonder if you know what it is yet. You know, I think the solution is to divide the cost of the fence. Or you cannot build a fence at all. Your garden would be twice as big. Wouldn’t it, Tom?
Thomas Edison: If nothing else, a pleasure. Enjoy the fair, George.
[he turns and walks away]
Nikola Tesla: We build monuments to speak to the future, to say, “We were here. We have lived.” A true legacy isn’t what we build up to the heavens, or carve deep into stone. And rocks will crumble, paper disintegrates, and bone turns to powder. Only that which isn’t in the physical realm and reaches in both directions can be eternal. Our ideas. They are what we leave behind. And only they are what can push us forward.
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