Based On A True* Story

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Summer is on the way out. In no time at all, Fall will be here – pumpkins will be sprouting, the days will get shorter, and those of us in here in New England will be inundated with the rest of you coming to gawk at our (briefly) lovely autumn leaves. Natural cycles and man-made rituals, both playing out in predictable rhythm.

Meanwhile, at your local movie theater, a different rite of seasonal passage is coming to pass: The arrival of the Early Best Actor Hopefuls. Small, unassuming films that exist primarily not as the end result of compelling screenplays or directorial flourish but rather to showcase one or two theoretically-bravura acting turns. It’s often an eclectic (though not too eclectic) mix: Softball biopics of famous people, middlebrow “issue” dramas, comedies that favor the bemused chuckles of a “Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!” panelist rather than raucous belly-laughs, you get the idea.

This weekend, two of 2013’s most prominent specimens of the form will make their obligatory “qualifying appearance” in theaters (these films are seldom expected to make money until early in the next year, based on the raised-profile of an Awards Season nomination.) Both are biopics, executed without much in the way of stylistic novelty so as to hold focus on their lead actors’ earnest pleas for Oscar gold, and both utilize the same starry-eyed “grand sweep of history” tone popularized by “Forrest Gump” two decades ago. Which is more than a little bizarre when you consider that one film’s ostensible focus is the tumultuous history of the American Civil Rights Movement from the turn of the century up through the election of the first black president in 2008… while the other applies the same basic template to the story of a guy whose life situation vacillates between regular-rich and Scrooge-McDuck-Rich as he “struggles” at what the film presents as the thrilling, noble endeavor of making home computers more aesthetically-acceptable to suburbanite consumers. (“We shall overcome… the color beige!”)

The first (or, at least, the more likely prominent) of the two is Lee Daniels’ The Butler, formerly just “The Butler” but re-titled because of a stupid, petty spat among millionaire movie producers. It purports to be based on the true life story of a real man (this one, specifically) but fictionalizes the narrative somewhat and changes the main characters’ names. Forrest Whitaker (already a Best Actor winner for his turn as Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland) plays Cecil Gaines, for the majority of a narrative a generations-employed butler in The White House, but who began life working on a cotton farm in the deep South. To protect him from brutal overseers, the farm’s matriarch (Vanessa Redgrave, in the first of the film’s many distracting celebrity walk-ons) promotes the child to house-servant; and he proves so adept at it that as an adult he finds gainful employment as a hotel butler before landing the job of a lifetime on the personal staff of The White House.

The film plays out in more or less equal measure between scenes of Cecil serving a succession of U.S. Presidents and building/maintaining a life for his family at home. Oprah Winfrey plays his wife, so you could call this a two-for-one special on Best Actor Hopefuls. The big idea at play is that this gives Cecil a unique vantage point on the history of the Civil Rights Movement. His family and friends experience the changing world firsthand at home while he observes from the sidelines as the actual decision making happens in the Oval Office. It’s an interesting conceit, even if it means parade of famous faces playing SNL-sketch level takeoffs on U.S. Presidents (John Cusack’s spectacularly bad Nixon never feels like anything but would-be parody) but despite an earnest and affecting performance Whitaker winds up lost inside his own movie – swallowed up by a plot that twists and loops back in on itself to make sure every important beat of history makes it into Cecil’s life in one way or another.

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Amusingly, the film seems to be both aware of how much it forgets to bother connecting the audience to Cecil’s perspective yet aware of how important it is to try that, well over halfway into story, it contrives an excuse for Martin Luther King to turn up and intone a mini-speech of praise to the history of the Black Domestic Servant. Basic idea: Though they may seem submissive, by proving themselves adept at finery among in “polite society” they are also quietly subversive in their own way. No, really: “And now, ladies and gentlemen, here’s Dr. King to explain how you are supposed to feel about the title character you have spent almost two hours supposedly getting to know.”

Suffice it to say, “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” is not a great film. But I’ll take it in a New York minute over Jobs, which features Ashton Kutcher in a fairly impressive turn as the late Steve Jobs in a movie that appears to have mistaken the late Apple founder/CEO for Jesus Christ. (Maybe it’s the beard?)

Chronicling Jobs’ life from the early days of soldering together boards in his parents’ garage with Steve Wozniak (played by Josh Gad) up to the re-launch of Apple as a trendy, status-symbol tech toy in the mid-90s, Jobs is the definition of sycophantic hagiography for a secular saint. Oh, all the well-known “bad stuff” is there: the temper, the utter lack of people skills, the tunnel-vision narcissism, screwing his friends out of Apple stock, etc. But all filtered through the justifying lens of a visionary view of the man it assumes the audience will share: “Yeah, this guy was kind of a jerk – but The Men Who Change The World often are, so it’s okay.” If any tech-heads in my readership are curious as to just how selective the film’s memory is: Jobs berating Bill Gates over the phone for “stealing” the Mac operating system for Windows gets a whole sequence to itself, but no indication as to the two men’s evolving relationship before, during or especially after that is included. At all. Oh, and care to guess what word is never once uttered during the film’s entire runtime? Xerox.

But alright. He was a prominent figure, the Cult of Apple is a very real thing in popular culture, and he did pass away tragically young. A certain amount of bent-over-backwards positivity is to be expected for the first biopic out of the gate. A presumably “meatier” version from Aaron Sorkin is also coming down the pike soon enough. Jobs‘ cardinal sin isn’t in approach but in tone: its one thing to want audiences to leave thinking Steve Jobs was a good guy, it’s another to want them to leave thinking he really was as important as your one friend who still camps out for each new iPhone launch swears he was.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to make the audience feel as connected to the events and their personal importance as are the characters, in fact, it’s the essence of a good biography. The idiosyncratic music and close, intimate cinematography in The Social Network did an able job communicating how important the petty skullduggery of the founding of Facebook was to Zuckerberg et al, but it’s detached tragicomic tone established that it at least recognized that for the money at stake and cultural presence. All the shouting was still just over an online organizing-system for address books and funny cat pictures – and that’s what made it all so interesting, however offbeat and quirky.

ashton kutcher steve jobs

Jobs, on the other hand, takes at face-value the idea that making home computing gradually more compact and aesthetically appealing was a humanity-benefiting endeavor of creation up there with fire, electricity and vaccines. It feels like the filmmakers ordered their score, pop-music soundtrack, cinematography and structure from a catalogue of DIY Movie Biography Templates and got sent the kit for “Soaring Story Of The Hero Who Saved Millions” kit instead of the “Here’s The Guy Who Made Your Music Player Smaller” package they asked for… and used it anyway.

My mouth was open and agape for huge sections of the film, unable to believe what I was watching: Scene after hagiographic scene of Kutcher’s Jobs delivering his earnest New Age-y paeans to outside the box design philosophy and aesthetic perfectionism, played completely straight by the film. Young Jobs twirling with wide-open arms in field of tall grass, soaking up energy from the sun like Superman (or Timothy Green.) At one point he has a “time to grow up” breakdown in front of a mirror, forcibly flattening his unkempt hippie-hair to his skull and furiously tucking his shirt in, and the editing and score treat it like we’re watching Bruce Wayne snap on his Utility Belt for the first time.

Yes, fine, Jobs’ refusal (inability?) to see his job making computers as not anything more than that is well documented as his great strength and great flaw, but it didn’t need to be the movie’s hangup as well. The rest of the time I found myself aghast at how trite and generic its “filler” scenes are. Soon-to-be-famous people wandering through idyllic College quads in montage to the tune of Cat Stevens’ “Peace Train”? In a Baby Boomer hero-worship flick? You don’t say!

Suffice it to say, I wasn’t terribly fond of either film, but then I’m not really the audience for it. These were produced primarily for Academy Awards voters (and also for Oprah’s acolytes and the true diehards among the Apple Faithful, respectively); and it’ll be a few months yet before we find out what they thought. I myself will be pushing for Pirates of Silicon Valley to be retroactively awarded the Oscar for Best Thing To Do Instead of Going To See Jobs.

Bob Chipman is a film critic and independent filmmaker. If you’ve heard of him before, you have officially been spending way too much time on the internet. Recently, he wrote a book.

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Image of Bob Chipman
Bob Chipman
Bob Chipman is a critic and author.