There’s something to be said for films with a tripartite structure. So far this fall season, we’ve had two films (there could easily be more), both about real-life figures of varying degrees of infamy, which have condensed their subjects’ epic and storied lives into three neat and tidy acts. Incidentally, both films are in the Oscar discussion, with their leading men getting particular attention. The first is Scott Cooper’s Black Mass, in which Johnny Depp is Whitey Bulger, the thug who ruled the South Boston crime world in the 1970s and ‘80s, became an FBI informant in return for virtual immunity, vanished for sixteen years, and is now an old man in prison. The film focuses on Bulger’s rally against the Italian mob in the mid-‘70s, his involvement with jai alai in the early ‘80s, and the collapse of his deal with the FBI in the mid-‘80s. Depp is great, but everything else is mediocre. You can tell that just from the total lack of focus in my summary. The second is Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs, which centers itself on three of the late tech demigod’s most critical product launches—the Mac in ’84, the disastrous Black Cube in ’88, and the iMac in ’98. It is even more mediocre. The trilogy, the division of a narrative into three, has done plenty for the arts since its inception in ancient Greece, but its execution in both of these films is just further emphasis of the biopic’s essential futility—the inadequacy of cinema to capture an entire life. Rather than try to tell one story, Cooper and Boyle aim to tell three. In struggling to compromise the proteus of life with the pithiness of cinema, they do little more than reiterate the unwieldiness of most biopics.
You’ll find that I often use these film reviews as jumping-off points for broader, first-draft, stream-of-consciousness thoughts that I have about cinema at large—and, when appropriate, about life at large. So let me say this: American cinema is currently in its deadball era. It’s obvious that Hollywood has been corporatized. At the same time, I imagine, Hollywood knows that if all they’re doling out to the masses is franchise crap, no one will take them seriously, and the indie studios—Megan Ellison and the like—will catch up to them. So, to remain respectable, around this time every year, they turn out the usual mediocre Oscar fodder—the obligatory biopics, the obligatory novel/stage adaptations, the obligatory veteran career cappers, the obligatory timely issue dramas, the obligatory prestige pics. Boilerplate, most of it. There’s art, and then there’s what Hollywood is comfortable passing off as art when Oscar season calls for it—namely, the efforts of our contemporary celebrity culture to achieve the level of art, which—given its ostentation, its severe bias, its undisciplined naïveté, its addiction to melodrama and cliché, and its perpetual snark—it rarely if ever does. (Stuff like Charlize Theron in Monster is more the exception than the norm, which is part of why it’s so legendary.) Film buffs and critics learn very quickly to not trust the Oscars or any other awards. They can be a useful way of introducing oneself to other breeds of cinema, and it’s always exciting when a foreign film breaks into the mainstream—as I’m hoping Son of Saul will do this awards season—but that’s it. For true art, I typically look elsewhere.
This is not to say that Steve Jobs is a failure, or even bad. (That is the film I want to focus on right now. The consensus of critics has covered most of Black Mass’ flaws, while Jobs remains lauded and can take the challenge.) The first act is as rousing as anything Boyle and his screenwriter Aaron Sorkin have ever done. There’s a central conflict—Jobs and company’s race against time to get the Macintosh to say “hello” to the audience despite numerous tech glitches—and thus, there’s focus. All the other backstage dramas—Chrisann Brennan’s staunch efforts to get Jobs to recognize that he is the father of her daughter Lisa, Steve Wozniak’s desire to have Jobs acknowledge the Apple II team in his remarks, the mystery of Jobs’ own absent father—are peripheral. They exist to intensify and interfere with what’s in the center. There is a single narrative that would more than suffice for a biopic about a man of such stature and hubris, and it’s beautiful. Boyle’s visual flair and Sorkin’s gift of gab are in top form and work together in great harmony for forty solid minutes. To the extent that the performances are great, the most interesting acting, to me, came not from Michael Fassbender as Jobs, terrific as he is, but from Kate Winslet as his Polish publicist, Joanna Hoffman. Hoffman’s relationship with Jobs is professional; she constructs Jobs’ image so that it is marketable, and she advises Jobs on how he can contribute to that. Yet, with someone as arrogant as Jobs who denies that he is Lisa’s father in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, Hoffman’s task often involves counseling him on the most sensitive issues and becoming his confidante. And since Jobs is an alienating asshat, she is the only one who can do it. The confusion of the personal with the professional—how man’s flaws manifest in the business sphere—strikes me as a key theme of Jobs’ life, and Winslet navigates it expertly, tackling touchy issues with a sturdy demeanor, a sincere perspective and little sentiment. Granted, her Polish accent is a hot mess.
After that honey of a first act, things go haywire. Boyle and Sorkin try to fit parallels into all three acts, a stab at art that comes off as contrived and theatrical to a fault. The way it’s played out, the supporting characters seem to think that the minutes before a product launch are a perfect time to make demands of Jobs and rehash old grudges with him. In ’88, Brennan (Katherine Waterston) comes back to ask for more money, “Woz” (Seth Rogen) comes back to belittle Jobs and his Black Cube, and Apple CEO John Sculley (Jeff Daniels) confronts Jobs about how he’s portraying his acrimonious departure from Apple to the media—minutes before he’s to go on stage to introduce the Black Cube! How convenient! Is this how it occurred in real life? I doubt it. The end result is that these characters come off more as specters haunting Jobs at crucial, preordained turning points in his career than as actual real-life people. What this all really is of course is Sorkin’s awkward way of cramming exposition into his three-act chamber drama where a different structure would work better. What’s more, in an attempt to adapt to Boyle’s storytelling style, Sorkin inserts a series of jarring flashbacks that reveal critical information way too late in the story, and that turn Boyle’s deft temporal maneuvers excessive. (Most of these are in the scenes between Jobs and Sculley.) It all leads up to the climactic moment in ’98 when Jobs and a now-coed Lisa (Perla Haney-Jardine) have their grand reconciliation, years in the making, on the rooftop of a convention center, while Hoffman stands on the sidelines screaming at Jobs because he’s running uncharacteristically late for the launch. You see, here, Hoffman is reduced to a trite plot device that forces Lisa to forgive her father quicker. Real life isn’t that quick, and cinema shouldn’t be, either.
I’m being tough on Boyle and Sorkin because I know them better than this and expected more from their auspicious collaboration than merely competent awards bait, made primarily to make up for Ashton Kutcher’s crock. Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire is a masterpiece, well above its awards. So is Sorkin’s The Social Network, another ambitious biopic told as a fictional interpretation of real events and people, which succeeds not least because it functions as a single, streamlined narrative. That film, ironically, was trounced at the Oscars by another stuffy, merely respectable piece of bait—The King’s Speech—and it’s a bummer that I end up acting so bitter towards such films because they’re not half-bad. They’re just mediocre, and they ought not pass for art when there are films on the caliber of Victoria playing in multiplexes that, come awards time, will be ignored because they’re too foreign and too daring, even though they put Steve Jobs and its ilk to shame. There’s still some entertainment value here. (Sorkin’s dialogue, even at its most grating, can be very superficially entertaining.) There’s the argument that spills out when Woz confronts Jobs—again, in ’98—over his choice refusal to cite the Apple II team. There’s the revelation of Jobs’ father, and an insightful discussion on the public image of Alan Turing. I haven’t even mentioned Michael Stuhlbarg, astonishing as Andy Hertzfeld, who gets the brunt of Jobs’ cruel treatment, and who we see in ’98 as a tragic, shabby, reduced figure—balding and schlepping around much weight—whose secret friendship with Lisa forces him to a critical moral decision. Stuhlbarg is a close second to Winslet because of the scene in which we learn that decision. This could’ve been a great film. But Sorkin just had to chop it up into three acts, and that sunk it.