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The Imitation Game: ‘Steve Jobs’ and the Oscar solution

| Thursday, October 29, 2015

ImitationGame_Banner_WebJanice Chung | The Observer

Editor’s Note: This article is a continuation of Nick Laureano’s The Imitation Game: ‘Bridge of Spies’ and the Oscar problemwhich ran in yesterday’s edition.

Set the time circuits to February 2010 and hit 88 mph. “The King’s Speech” — a film that is decent in every possible sense of the word — beat “The Social Network” for Oscar gold. As a startling portrait of egotism, jealousy and betrayal that captured the ethos of the Internet generation, “The Social Network” is one of the best films of this decade. It truly earns comparisons to films like “Citizen Kane” and “Rashomon.” Everything about “The Social Network” — its screenplay, acting, directing, editing, cinematography, sound design, literally all of it — is sharper than “The King’s Speech.” It is not, however, a feel-good story about a historical hero à la “The King’s Speech.” Rather, it is a portrait of a modern antihero that leaves its viewers with a cynical outlook on the state of modern culture. Like period settings, serious tones and claims of historical truth, happy endings seem to score points with Oscar voters these days, as the last truly startling film to win Best Picture was 2007’s “No Country For Old Men.”

Earlier that February night, Colin Firth snagged the Best Actor award for his entirely adequate portrayal of George VI, England’s stuttering king at the center of “The King’s Speech.” Sure, Firth’s stutter was convincing, but the portrayal as a whole felt hermetically sealed. Despite recurring allusions to the King’s childhood woes, one never got the feeling that Firth’s George ever existed beyond the beginning and end of the film. Firth’s technical mastery of George’s mannerisms was impressive; but in so diligently imitating the actual King, one sensed that Firth squandered an opportunity to imbue the role with any of his own personality.

Some of the all-time great screen performances depict real people — Peter O’Toole’s turn as T.E. Lawrence comes to mind. But, as Scott Anderson noted in his “Word & Film” article “What’s Right and Wrong in ‘Lawrence of Arabia,’” O’Toole and the makers of “Lawrence of Arabia” were criticized by many historians for taking artistic liberties with their portrayal of Lawrence. Rather than depict a patriotic war hero, O’Toole paints Lawrence as an antihero with a temper. The result for Anderson is a film that trades historical accuracy for profound emotional truth. I couldn’t agree more — that’s what great acting is all about. Firth was merely playing at imitation.

Consider Eddie Redmayne. He snagged the Oscar this past year for contorting his body for two hours in “The Theory of Everything.” On his way to the stage, he stepped over Michael Keaton (full disclosure: I cried when Keaton lost). Whereas Redmayne’s performance as Stephen Hawking was mostly preoccupied with imitating Hawking’s crippled posture, Keaton’s was all truth. Despite what Keaton has said in interviews, his performance as Riggan Thomson in “Birdman” was clearly informed by his own life. Perhaps only Keaton, a man who left a blockbuster franchise only to drift into relative obscurity for the second half of his career, could have played Riggan, a man who left a blockbuster franchise only to drift into absolute obscurity. Even Keaton’s role in an ambitious film like “Birdman” parallels Riggan’s role in his audacious stage adaptation of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” Keaton’s pure candor in “Birdman” made his performance braver and more emotionally resonant than Redmayne’s imitation of Hawking. Redmayne put almost nothing personal on the line; Keaton threw his whole life down on table.

Perhaps it is because these imitation pictures keep winning awards that Hollywood keeps making them, even though all so-called prestige pictures are something of a financial gamble for the studios. Enter “Steve Jobs.” Directed by Danny Boyle from a script by Aaron Sorkin (“West Wing,” “Social Network”), “Steve Jobs” plays like, well, a play. Its three acts depict the moments leading up to three product launches: Apple’s Macintosh in 1984, the NeXTcube in 1988 and Apple’s iMac in 1998. Lots of Sorkinisms are deployed: Characters walk and talk; characters break into verbal violence at inappropriate times and places; and Michael Fassbender’s Jobs is constantly talking about two or more different things and expecting those around him to keep up.

The entire film takes place while Jobs is getting dressed for presentations, so not much actually happens. Rather, Sorkin fills this liminal space with weighty dialogue about what has happened (“She’s not my child!”) and what will happen (“It will be the most tectonic shift in the status quo since — ” “Since ever.” It’s a crack marketing squad that put that line in every trailer, subtlety be damned). The narrative mechanics might not yield much in the way of story, but they do allow Fassbender to strut his stuff as Jobs. Nevertheless, Jobs comes off as a Silicon Valley demagogue, rather than the visionary he so often claims to be.

Fassbender doesn’t look at all like Steve Jobs, but in his assumed posture and voice, one gets the sense that he is trying to. He mostly excels in a role that requires him to move from one over-the-top verbal confrontation to another, briefly meditating on past events in between each oral bout. The performance is sound, but Sorkin’s stunted portrait of Jobs is unreceptive to even Fassbender’s attempts to breath life into the role. He and those around him are constantly talking about events that occurred between each of these product launches, yet all these events feel like narrative artifice rather than things that actually happened. The film’s subtitle ought to be “Stuff happened that you don’t get to see but hey, you get to hear about it, so there’s that.” Remember in “The Social Network” when we actually got to see the things the characters were talking about?

Well that got rather preachy. Don’t worry: I’m not one to complain without offering a solution. The good news is Hollywood is a business. Since it is ultimately the consumer’s money that foots the bill, we hold all the power. So “tl;dr”: Don’t go see any movies between October and December because they’re all unimaginative garbage and we ought to teach Hollywood a lesson. Maybe someday we’ll even see a movie about our triumph over Hollywood. Wait a minute …

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