Movie Review: “Steve Jobs” (Danny Boyle, USA 2015)

For many years, Aaron Sorkin was one of the best dialogue writers in Hollywood. Even when he was writing dull stories, they were often entertaining just for the sparkling language. Then, The Social Network (David Fincher, USA 2010) happened. While that film had some moments where Sorkin’s dialogue retained remnants of its old glory, it was a fundamentally flawed pile of nonsense and Sorkin shared some of the blame with Fincher. (In a nutshell, the problem with that film is that this is its point: Mark Zuckerberg is an asshole. It has nothing else to say.) And yet it was widely praised just for being a film about something “modern.” He followed that with the pointless Moneyball (Bennett Miller, USA 2011) and the so-thin-you-could-see-through-every-frame series The Newsroom, neither of which bore any sign of the man who had written A Few Good Men (Rob Reiner, USA 1992). After a little time off, he’s back with another biopic of a jerk who has been big in the technology world of the last decade or so, Steve Jobs. And unfortunately, he didn’t do any better of a job than he did the last time.

Danny Boyle is well respected but I haven’t actually seen any of his work before, but he also didn’t do anything to fix Sorkin’s mess. Sorkin wrote a film whose entire point is that Steve Jobs was a bad father and a jackass. On Sherlock, Lestrade once comments that “Sherlock Holmes is a great man, and maybe he can even be a good one,” and that’s all this film is about. It shows us Jobs at some of his major product launches, showing both how he pushes those around him to do good work and how he pushes them away from himself personally through sheer nastiness. It spends a lot of time discussing (but little time showing) his relationship with his daughter and her mother, doing some, as Orson Welles would say, “dollar-book Freud” analysis relating his performance as a father to his own history as an adopted child.

The film is at least focused on particular aspects of Jobs’s life to the point that it ignores really interesting things in his life, like his founding of Pixar or the feud with Bill Gates that serves as the premise for Pirates of Silicon Valley (Martyn Burke, USA 1999), a made-for-television movie that I always enjoyed. It condenses Jobs’s personality and his family relationship to three product launches: the Macintosh in 1984, the NeXTcube in 1990, and the iMac in 1998. It makes some sacrifices of reality in its timeline, pretending like the NeXTcube was the first NeXT product instead of a follow-up to the somewhat successful NeXT Computer, and notably not mentioning that the idea to turn NeXTSTEP into the next Apple operating system, which eventually became Mac OS X took eight years to work. That’s one thing the film does well. Unfortunately, it’s all the film does well.

It also suffers from a fairly typical problem for biopics: it tries to explain him to us, while ignoring that people are complicated. Jobs was such a hippie that he was known to reject job candidates for coming in wearing suits and he probably hastened his own death by sticking to “alternative” treatments instead of medicine. But he also spent his entire career working in the technology industry–even his foray into entertainment started from computer graphics technology instead of creativity. One could spend an entire film trying to explain that apparent contradiction. He was known as a demanding, controlling boss at Apple while people at Pixar described him as laid back and willing to allow them total freedom. One could spend an entire film trying to explain that one. So, why try to explain him in total in one film? It’s a fool’s errand that Sorkin and Jobs attempt.

Thankfully, Boyle and cinematographer Alwin H. Küchler actually have some interesting tricks up their sleeve. The film is shot in a lot of long, moving shots–it is very reminiscent of a Scorsese film. Using those long shots emphasizes the idea that Jobs is having to juggle all of these issues and relationships at once. The quality of the film itself gets higher as the film goes along–beginning with some hideous 16mm film that looks almost like videotape, progressing to 35mm, and then dropping off into digital (Yep, I’m calling it a downgrade. That’s how I prove I’m a snob.), emphasizing the change in time and the advancements in technology that are part of the plot of Jobs’s life. They don’t do much with color or lighting and nothing really enhances the emotions, but they do something, at least.

Overall, the acting is pretty excellent, but little is required of, really, anyone. Michael Fassbender has to be able to be alternately angry and reflective as Jobs, but never anything else or any mix thereof. Kate Winslet as his personal assistant and Jiminy Cricket is her usual amazingness, nailing a Polish accent and showing far more in her subtle responses to Jobs’s insanity than any human being should be capable of. Boyle apparently got the memo wrong and cast Seth Rogen in the type of role that Hollywood seems to believe is required to be given to Jonah Hill (who then is given praise for no reason), and he is fine buried under a mountain of facial hair that keeps him from showing anything. Jeff Daniels is wooden as always, but it makes enough sense for John Sculley, whose role in this film really doesn’t give Daniels anything to ruin.

Steve Jobs is a poor film. It has nothing to say except that Steve Jobs was a bad father and a jerk, which is not of interest to anyone other than Jobs’s family. The acting is fine and Boyle does some interesting visual stuff, but this is a film whose failings on a basic plotting and narrative level are so extreme that they cannot be overcome.

Notes

  • Why is Jeff Daniels in every movie?
  • Kate Winslet was way, way too good for this role. And it seems like I’m saying that about her a lot the last few years.
  • I hate “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35.” I’m not a Dylan fan anyway, but that song is just horrendous.
  • The Rite of Spring was the best example Jobs and Jiminy had of something that failed after overhype? With Jobs’s love of ’60s music, how about Pet Sounds, which was a commercial failure in part due to a nonstop Beach Boys hype machine? Or the shelved SMiLE? How about Intolerance (D.W. Griffith, USA 1916) or The Magnificent Ambersons (Orson Welles, USA 1942), which failed only in comparison to their immediate predecessors. Just a weird choice.
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Movie Review: “12 Years a Slave” (Steve McQueen, USA/UK 2013)

Sometimes, I diagnose films with what I call “Holocaust* Movie Syndrome,” which means that they are being judged on the basis of the importance and power of their subject rather than their own merit. I call it “Holocaust Movie Syndrome” because holocaust movies are often given this treatment, receiving universal, almost unthinking praise simply for being holocaust movies. The treatment works in the opposite direction as well, with “silly” movies like Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (Edgar Wright, USA/UK/Canada/Japan 2010) dismissed as “fluff” in spite of having obvious quality. It does not mean anything in particular about the film, which may indeed deserve the praise anyway (for example, The Pianist [Roman Polanski, France/Poland/Germany/UK 2002] was a clear case of Holocaust Movie Syndrome, but was in any event a remarkable film that deserved that praise), but it means that much of the critical reception is rather shallow and cannot be given the weight that critical opinion usually carries.

12 Years a Slave was a clear case of Holocaust Movie Syndrome, being praised mostly on the basis of its depiction of an important and emotionally powerful subject. That meant that, in spite of the immense praise it is receiving as the likely Best Picture winner at the Academy Awards, I went in to this film with little idea of what to expect. In the end, it ended up a good film, if not one that deserves quite the praise being heaped on it.

The film’s tale is the powerful, riveting true story of Solomon Northrup, a free black man in 1841 New York who is kidnapped into slavery in the south and spends 12 years as a slave before being able to return to his family and freedom. It’s interesting and packs an emotional wallop, and director Steve McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley use the strength of the story and its characters to maximum effect.

The one problem is that the film’s greatest strength—the story—also becomes a weakness as McQueen is unable to stay focused on a single point throughout. Much of the film fits a central point about the miraculous-yet-dangerous ability of humans to hide within themselves to avoid facing what is wrong around them or even within themselves. For a film that does an awful lot right, that’s not the biggest flaw in the world, but it is enough to keep the film from being a masterpiece, or even being as good as Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel Coen/Ethan Coen, USA/France 2013) or Captain Phillips (Paul Greengrass, USA 2013) were in its year.

McQueen and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt advance their central point with a number of interesting visual elements. Brutalities of various types—murders, beatings, etc.—are consistently happening on or just off the edge of the screen, out of focus, or in darkness that hides just how brutal they are, as the in focus characters do their best to ignore them. Those techniques make it all the more powerful when we finally do see the brutality full-force, first when Solomon himself is strung up but survives and then when he is forced to whip a fellow slave himself. They also use changes in coloring and lighting to their best effects, enhancing the terror of Solomon’s discovery that he is trapped in some bizarre sort of prison cell with low-key lighting and enhancing the relative freedom that Solomon feels in Judge Turner’s cane fields with bright, saturated colors. It’s a well-made film visually.

Chiwetel Ejiofor leads a cast that is rather uneven, but he leads it with an excellent performance. Like with Tom Hanks in Captain Phillips, he plays a character who generally does not wear his emotions on his sleeve and so is often limited in what he can show, though he does everything they ask perfectly well. And then, he has a few scenes where he gets to (relatively) chew the scenery, like his tearful explanation of his situation to Bass and his reunion with his family, and he is absolutely fantastic in every one of them. It’s a great performance, and one that is really marked by his restraint. Meanwhile, Paul Giamatti, Sarah Paulson, and Benedict Cumberbatch are excellent in small roles, seeming completely natural and showing a remarkable amount of depth for what little screen time they have. However, Michael Fassbender and Lupita Nyong’o are both relatively weak in their roles, sometimes coming across as though they are trying to hard or just as generally appearing unnatural.

The other role that deserves note is Brad Pitt’s performance as Bass. While he does not have much to do and does not really stand out in a good or bad way in his role, I found it rather silly to cast him in that part, immediately turning that character into a white knight who is bound to save Solomon. We’ve seen him betrayed again and again, to the point that we would be just as suspicious of Bass as he would be, but once we see that he’s Brad Pitt, we know he’s not going to sell Solomon down the river or fail. It’s nice that Pitt wanted to be in the film to lend it some star power (though since he was a producer, he already could have done that) and certainly his performance is not a problem, but I think it was a mistake to cast him in this way.

Hans Zimmer produced an excellent score that uses Solomon’s facility with a violin to full effect and perfectly enhanced every emotion the film sought to elicit. It wasn’t one of the more attention-grabbing scores one could ever hear, but it did exactly what you want of a film score.

Overall, 12 Years a Slave is a very good film that has one major flaw that keeps it from really being a masterpiece. Luckily, it does everything else about as well as you can ask, and that’s what keeps it worth watching. Further, it is of course an emotionally powerful journey that will punch you in the gut, and I’m not sure that the commoditization and dehumanization of people involved in slavery has ever been captured more strongly.

 

*The “holocaust” being referred to throughout is the Nazi-led holocaust from World War II. I am simply calling these films “holocaust” movies for the sake of brevity, and certainly do not mean to imply that other holocausts have not occurred, as indeed they have.