NICE WORK IF YOU CAN GET IT and PRAVDA: Steve Jobs and Truth

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steve jobsThere’s a moment in Steve Jobs, the new biopic written by Aaron Sorkin and directed by Danny Boyle, when Steve Wozniak (who, it is suggested here, seemed to have done most of, if not all, the work on the Apple Computer which is what brought fame first to Jobs) lists all the things that Jobs cannot and did not do (such as write code). When he finished, Wozniak asks what seems to be one of the most appropriate questions of the entire film: Just what do you do?
In response, Jobs says that he’s the conductor that plays the orchestra.
Fair enough. But then I so wanted Wozniak to ask the obvious follow up question: So why do you get all the credit when you haven’t really done any of the essential work?
Because think about it. Quick, name five conductors off the top of your head. No, don’t google it, just do it. When I did, all I came up with was Bernstein, Toscanini and Stokowski. Now, quick, name ten composers who created the music these conductors, well, conducted? I immediately zipped through Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Wagner, Copland, Verdi, Liszt and Stravinsky.
This last is especially interesting since at one point Jobs compares himself to Stravinsky, when to really be fully parallel, in this metaphor he’s Serge Koussevitsky. Who is Koussevitsky, you ask? He was the conductor at the premier of the riot inducing The Rite of Spring.
Never heard of him, right?
Exactly. That’s because conductors don’t create art, they interpret it. That is why the composer gets the credit, not the conductor.
If one was of a suspicious nature, one might wonder if sneaky little Aaron Sorkin wasn’t, in these scenes, taking more than a few potshots at film directors. After all, what do they do? Generally speaking, they don’t write the screenplay; they don’t design the costumes and sets; they don’t edit; they don’t create the cinematography; they don’t write the music; they don’t act; they don’t provide the money for it.


What they do is play all the people they do, like a conductor.


(And yes, I know there are exceptions such as there are also conductors like Bernstein who will conduct his own music; but he doesn’t get credit for the conducting here, he gets credit for the composition.)


Of course, I’m not saying that this is what Sorkin is hinting at, but if any writer has the ability to say such a thing and back it up, it’s probably he.


At any rate, if this is what Sorkin is trying to suggest, it’s unfortunate he used this particular movie to suggest it with because Steve Jobs never really comes together in as strong a manner as one might like. And the fault most likely needs to be laid at the foot of the screenplay.


The basic structure takes place on three different days in which Jobs is presenting his most recent creation in the world of IT. Most reviewers have focused on the idea that the main through line is that each day also dramatizes Jobs relationship with his daughter.


But, to me, this is a misreading of the structure and why the movie never really works as well as one would like. Each day dramatized isn’t just Jobs releasing his new creation (which he didn’t really create, only orchestrated) and his interaction with his daughter, each day also has a confrontation with the same four people: Steve Wozniak, Andy Hertzfeld, John Scully and Joanna Hoffman.


Now in many ways, though a bit legit theatrical, this is a neat little conceit.


But it’s also where the film breaks down, because with each interaction, Jobs has a big argument and furious interaction. But as far as I could tell, the arguments and interactions are pretty much exactly the same each time. So basically we get the same scene repeated three times.


And that’s about it.


We don’t really see Jobs grow as a person or change (at the end, he does do something to suggest that he has decided to treat humans better than computers, but it feels forced and pasted on, not really growing organically out of the situation and characters, just there to give Jobs a last minute character arc).   He’s pretty much the same person in the third scene as he is in the first.


In fact, the metaphor that comes to mind is a broken record.


And it actually gets a little tiring.


Beyond this structure that is a bit unwieldy, we also have Sorkin’s signature dialog and characterization. And the characterizations are very strong. Everyone seems very three dimensional and they do have the stuff of life about them. And their dialog has that rock and roll rhythm that is so Sorkin and is filled with energy and at times electricity.


But the characters are trapped within this redundant structure that doesn’t quite work and the rhythm of the dialog here at times feels like it’s losing its rock and roll excitement, becoming so familiar, it’s beginning to sound a bit too much like Muzak.


The strongest aspect of the movie is the acting and there are some wonderful performances here. Michael Stuhlbarg is almost unrecognizable as Andy Hertzfeld, nervous and nerdy, perhaps the one actor here who convincingly ages, and Jeff Daniels once again more than effectively channels Will McAvoy.


It must be said Kate Winslet is also almost unrecognizable as Jobs’ yenta Joanna Hoffman, but I couldn’t decide if I thought her performance was great because she was great, or just because she was just so unrecognizable; i.e., it’s not a particularly interesting character.


But above it all, orchestrating everything is Michael Fassbender as Jobs, and he gives a very creditable performance. At the same time, I’ve always felt his middle-American accents have always fallen a bit flat, and I have to say that I also felt the same about his Jobs. There’s just something a little bland about his performance here, just as there is something a little bland about the character.


But then there’s something a little bland about the movie overall as well.


With Seth Rogen as Seth Rogan playing Wozniak (and does it rather well).


truthTruth, the new movie written and directed by James Vanderbilt, is also based on a real person and incident, the Sixty Minutes episode in which producer Marla Mapes and Dan Rather ran a story about George W. Bush (running for the presidency for a second term) in which they claim he avoided duty in Viet Nam by pulling strings and being allowed to join the National Guard. But the real story was that he never even fulfilled his duty there and basically went AWOL for a while.


The story became highly questionable when it was suggested that two documents that supported Mapes’s contention were actually forgeries and in fact, were produced on a word processing program on a computer, which didn’t exist at the time. According to the movie, whether the documents were real or not was never settled for certain, but it didn’t matter, the damage was done. Mapes never worked in TV again; Rather stepped down as CBS’s nightly news anchor; and a load of metaphorical dead bodies laid strewn in their path.


The movie is very sincere. It really wants to be a modern day version of All The President’s Men, but with an unhappy ending that also forecasts Armageddon if we don’t do something about the media right this second. But it never quite gets there. I’m not convinced it really even comes close.


I think one of the central problems is the subject matter itself, that of the almighty W. avoiding Viet Nam. The filmmakers desperately want to make this a scandal as outrageous as the Pentagon Papers and Watergate. But as far as I’m concerned, they just can’t quite do it.


I remember when this happened. For me, by this time Sixty Minutes had sort of lost its luster, was becoming fairly bland and wasn’t nearly as exciting as it was when it first went on the air in 1983. Still, in spite of that, this Bush controversy was a story that sounded kind of fun.


But as much as I wanted to, and as liberal as I am, I just couldn’t take it all that seriously. Okay, Bush got his daddy’s close and powerful friends to get him out of going to Viet Nam. I lived through that period and I knew few people who wouldn’t have done something similar, in fact who wouldn’t have done anything, and many did, to avoid going over there. Maybe Bush had a better chance than most, but still, Viet Nam was not the most popular war we’ve ever fought, to say the least.


In addition, so he succumbed to youthful indiscretions and didn’t fulfill his duty. Yeah, he’s a bad boy. But still, he was young. Who of us hasn’t done something when we were a callow youth tan of cheek that we would very much like never to come to light?


I didn’t want Bush reelected. But because of the Iraq War and the devastating economy. Not because of this rather picayune detail of Bush’s immaturity.


So all the characters in the movie Truth whine and scream and get teary eyed and throw tantrums because people won’t take the story as seriously as they do. They do everything except, one, actually prove the story to be true, and second, convince us that it really is an important story.


What is also unusual about the movie is that even though it is based on Mapes’s book about the incident, Truth and Duty: The Press, The President, and the Privilege of Power, it still ends up making Mapes look pretty bad. She rushes the story, doesn’t have strong support for her assertions, makes some journalism 101 errors (she asks someone if he is familiar with the documents and when he says, “yes”, she assumed he meant they are authentic, when it turns out later, he only meant he had heard about them), ignores people who suggest maybe there’s something not quite kosher with the documents, yet still maintains that there was nothing essentially wrong with the story and that she didn’t really do anything that amiss.


She even has the gall at one point to say that if reporters like Woodward and Bernstein were treated as she was, the Pentagon Papers would never have been published and Watergate wouldn’t have been revealed. But The Washington Post, from what I understand, actually treated Woodward and Bernstein much tougher than Mapes, always requiring two confirmations for any story they ran, including anything they got from Deep Throat.


There’s a telling scene at the end where Mapes has to appear before an internal CBS panel that is investigating whether she and Rather did anything wrong. The panel concludes that she never really questioned the documents, but always assumed they were true, and never took anybody’s doubts into account—that she had an agenda.


She counters that the two documents couldn’t be forgeries because whoever forged them would have to have had so much information, have so much personal insight and information, know everything about everyone at the time—they would have to be so brilliant in every aspect of the forgery, yet be so stupid as to use a word processor to produce them.


The problem that Mapes doesn’t seem to understand (and the filmmakers as well) is that these are not two exclusive stands to take. Both could be quite correct. And it’s because she couldn’t see that both could be correct that she blundered with the ultimate story.


The movie is filled with what is known as a stellar cast. Cate Blanchett is Mapes; Robert Redford is Rather; Topher Grace, Elizabeth Moss and Dennis Quaid (these last two totally wasted) play the main reporters who worked on the story.


There’s nothing to really fault here until someone is asked to speechify and be a spokesperson for the filmmakers. Grace’s big scene is especially cringe worthy (and makes him seem like not a seeker of truth, but the kind of guy who suddenly shows up one day wearing an aluminum foil hat), and when you see Blanchett’s big scene coming you start praying it won’t happen.


The only one who gets away with their big moment is Noni Hazlehust as the wife of Bill Burkett, the man who first passed on the documents to Mapes. She blasts the group of them after they forced Burkett to go public and try to make him the scapegoat for what happened. And when she’s finished, you almost want to stand up and clap.


And yet, even after her impassioned speech, none of the characters seem to really understand exactly what they’ve done.


With Stacy Keach as Bill Burkett (who probably gives the best performance in the movie) and Dermot Mulroney as the head of the investigating committee.



So tell me what you think.

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