Portrait of an American Hero (Pt. I)
We decide, America, what stories to tell ourselves about ourselves. Sure, individuals make choices about what kinds of creative projects to take up, how best to interpret certain stories—but as a whole, filmmaking is a complicated process that relies on many decisions within concentric circles of social responsibility. And the circle I’m talking about here is the brew and churn of the mass media, of what kinds of stories become popular in America. We decide what those are. We vote with our money. And people with much more money and decision-making power look at trends and numbers and decide what films, television shows, and music they should be making based on our responses. For the most part, Americans have come to accept this lab-rat approach to mass entertainment, and even embrace it. Hell, if it works for the governing of our nation…
The trouble with lab-rats is that they get used to the cheese, addicted to it. They’ll force themselves through painful obstacles to get to it. And when they get it, it’s gratifying. They don’t have to think about the fact that they’re trapped. They can focus on the cheese, nibble away until it's gone, until they’re fat and happy, looking for the next piece. They begin to define themselves by that cheese. They begin to identify with it.
Steve Jobs is a piece of cheese. Aaron Sorkin’s script gives us no room to breathe, no room to consider critically its characters and the larger national consequences of Apple’s rise and our celebration of the man at the helm. It bombards us with three acts of non-stop walk-and-talk, telling us what the characters feel, filling in detail after detail, quip after quip. There is no layering or divergence in rhythm, no composition, no responsibility to the audience. The author has written something in his own “style,” something he can congratulate himself on so that others can congratulate his self-congratulations. Congratulations, Mr. Sorkin, for repeating yourself! I just love it when you give me something I’m familiar with so that I can feel good about it, regardless if it reflects any truth about this particular situation or not.
I love me some cheese.
Of course, some of the responsibility for this relentless execution falls on the shoulders of the director, Danny Boyle, who gives a bland, face-value interpretation of the script that reveals nothing aside from what the author wants to say. It’s as if there was no critical conversation, and Sorkin’s ego, like Jobs’, determined the entire vision. Boyle has become a vessel, and none of what makes him a challenging and influential filmmaker has made it into this piece. Even the casting is undercooked: the chiseled, manly Michael Fassbender as the skinny, shrew-like Jobs? What a convenient way to reinterpret a pop-culture icon—now he fits the hero mold! We should all be so lucky to become, or even to know, such a man: attractive, a genius, a capitalist, the exception to the rule.
But wait, you say—this movie portrays Jobs in a negative light by revealing how he allegedly treated his daughter (?) and wife. It shows his flaws. It makes him human…like us. Yet the film’s ending forces a positive reconnection with his daughter, which inspires another idea for a groundbreaking product, followed by a celebration of his latest release. Our American Innovator has faced his demons and can now enjoy his success. He has earned his place as a figure worthy of our reverence yet again. And so have his products. What else could there be to say?
When I saw the team behind the film step onstage at the 53rd Annual NYFF to present it, I saw a parade of well-dressed, disconnected, dispassionate talent. Even though it played in the same venue as Michael Moore’s latest, Where To Invade Next, it was as if I’d entered another universe. Only hours before, this purposefully unkempt fat man from Michigan had brought an audience to tears and rallied their spirits to stand up, reject the cheese being fed to them, and fight their way out of the lab. (Continued in Pt. II).