The case of Steve Jobs has been a perplexing one. A promising limited release in the States was colouring this to be the hot awards ticket that many expected it would be. Yet when Universal made the decision to push wide earlier than scheduled, the film bombed. Now, while certain to be present this award season, this Boyle/Aaron Sorkin joint simply doesnt seem to be burning up among movie-goers. Discussion of it is limited almost to nothing. Which is a shame because it is one of the most finely acted, sharply scripted and energetically directed films of the year.
Focusing on three separate product launches, from the Mackintosh in 1984, to the ill-fated Next System in 1988 and culminating with the release of the i-Mac in 1998, Sorkin’s screenplay keeps all the drama backstage in the build up to each of Job’s presentations, demonstrating his relationships with colleagues, friends, lovers and the girl who he refuses to admit is his daughter.
Through focusing on issues both technical and personal, the film attempts to give a portrait of Jobs as a man without following the tropes of a more conventional bio-pic. It is a structure that feels more accustomed to the stage, and while it may feel repetitive at times, the film is undoubtedly unique, bold, and uncompromising in the way it wishes to proceed. Much like the man himself.
Each back-stage encounter allows Jobs, evoked rather than imitated by Michael Fassbender, to interact with all the key players in his life, from devoted assistant Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), old friend and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniack (Seth Rogen), CEO of Apple John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), his former girlfriend (Katherine Waterston) and his supposed daughter, Lisa (Perla Haney-Jardine, Ripley Sobo, and Makenzie Moss at different ages). Each back-stage walk and talk sees Jobs encounter everyone, battling with some and reconciling with others, allows Sorkin’s dialogue to truly fly, delivered by a fine cast of actors, arguably the finest assembled to deliver Sorkin’s words. No one puts a foot wrong, but it is by far Fassbender’s film, doing so much to make us see this version of Jobs as both a portrait of one of the most significant men in the modern age, and as a character who lives and breathes thanks to his presence.
Being a Sorkin script, the film is incrdibly dialogue driven, which is why the choice of Danny Boyle as director seems a bit strange, as he is a man often applauded for his visceral kineticism as a director. Somehow, though, it works. Boyle finds movement and pace through his camera work and through his clever and bombastic visual tweaks which highlight points and drive home Jobs rhetoric. Shooting on era appropriate flm stock and moving to digital gives the film a unique aesthetic, while Dnaiel Pemberton’s score does wonders to punctuate the faultless editing in numerous sequences of heightened drama.
The repetitiveness of the structure and Sorkin’s occasional lapse in to crafting lines of rather cringe-worthy prohesising of the future of Apple, Steve Jobs is nothing if not indulgent; but it is entertaining in only the way a Sorkin scripted movie can be. His energy is paired somewhat brilliantly with Boyle’s developing a film which is entertaining throughout and a wondrous master-class of actorly craft. 4/5
Black Mass (Dir: Scott Cooper)
Black Mass has been particularly highlighted as marking a return of Johnny Depp as a ‘serious character actor’ after a string of performances which which require little of him beyond the ‘Jack Sparrow’ routine, and that’s without acknowledging that none of them have been particularly well received at the box office. Black Mass certainly does offer a role for Depp that allows him to flex more than he has in recent years, and he certainly delivers what is asked of him. The problem is that the film itself ends up asking little of hi in a scattered and un-focused snapshot of one of America’s intriguing criminals.
Depp plays Whitey Bulger, a Boston Gangster, who manages to use the powers of the FBI for his own gain when child-hood friend Agent John Connelly (Joel Edgarton) approaches him with an offer to help take down rival gangs in the city. Bulger managed to orchestrate for himself an untouchable empire, and managed to evade capture for many years despite being responsible for many violent crimes, and taking many people’s lives. While the figure is undoubtedly interesting and worth exploring, Scott Cooper’s film fails to truly land on a point of focus, leading to a frustrating and wholly generic gangster pic that could have been so much more.
We initially seem to be taking on the perspective of a leg-man in Whitey’s ranks, played by the ever-dependable Jesse Plemons, before then jumping into to Whitey’s personal life with his mother and publicly adored Senator brother (Benedict Cumberbatch). That is until it takes more of a focus on Connelly, on his desire to both impress Bulger and rise in the ranks of Federal officials. It never settles on any one character, leaving many thinkly sketched, relying on the admitteddly very talented cast to paint in more than the script actually allows them.
Thankfully for the film, the cast is up to the challenge. Edgarton is on particularly fine form as Connelly, delivering great nuances and conflict in a man who never seems to have grown up from being a small boy admiring the strength and control exuded by Bulger. Depp himself disappears behind heavy prosthetics to present a monstrous image of one of America’s criminals, but is let down by the film which seems to only want to depict him as a sneering, unmerciful killer come the final third, despite their being shades of something much more complicated.
There is a strong film here, with many separate moments proving affecting thanks to stellar work from the actors, and Cooper is certainly a director who knows how to send a chill down your spine. The main issue is that it all feels too disjointed to come through as a convincing character study, something which it seems entirely un-interested achieving. 2/5
Bridge of Spies (Dir: Steven Spielberg)
Trust Spielberg to be the one to make it like they used to. With a dash of Capra, a lashing of Carol Reed and a good dose of his own sensibilities, Spielberg has crafted a refreshingly old-fashioned Cold War drama which is pure Americana in its most purest and un-cynical form.
Lawyer James Donovan (Tom Hanks) is called upon to represent a suspected Soviet Spy named Abel (Mark Rylance) in the face of the Cold War. After showing great strength and resilience in upholding the constitution despite representing what many deem to be the enemy, Donovan is once again tasked with the impossible; he must negotiate a swap for Abel after a US fighter pilot is caught taking aerial photographs over Russia. The location of the swap: Soviet Occupied East Berlin.
A wonderfully complex moment in Cold war history, Bridge of Spies tells its tale vicariously through the eyes of Donovan, a man of unshakeable moral ethics, a decent and honourable man who could perhaps only ever be played by Tom Hanks (in another era, this would be a Jimmy Stewart picture). Partnering with Hanks for the fourth time, Spielberg uses his star’s persona to power much of the characterisation of Donovan, and it quite simply works. Hanks is wonderful in a role which relies upon his natural confidence and charisma. We need to believe Donovan is a man who can talk himself out of any situation, all the while never bending his ethical and moral code, and having someone as established and as dependable as Hanks in the role firmly establishes Donovan as such in a believable way.
However, as a result, it is often difficult to feel there is all that much at stake; history is written and its Tom Hanks, of course he will win out against the obstacles that stand in his way. Spielberg therefore frames his story as a moment of courage and resilience in a complicated political climate, and as a reminder that neither side may be right. Donovan may be American, but he sees how Abel’s own resilience is something to admire, despite him being part of ‘the other side.’ Rylance’s quietly assured and affecting performance enables this mirroring and duality to take place, offering Abel as a character of sympathy, not one who should be judged.
Spielberg is now rather effortless at establishing his aesthetic, working with tried and tested crew members to produce a finely crafted picture. Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski often chooses high key lighting to give the film an almost dream-like quality at times, while producing some truly chilling imagery come Donovan’s entrance into East Berlin.
The second half of the film moves away from the Capra-esuqe courtroom drama of the first hour. We witness an eye-catchign moment of spectacle as the US Fighter pilot is shot down, we enter East Berlin and the sense of danger is palpable. It is in these moments that the script contribution of the Coen Brothers can truly be felt, presenting us with ridiculous figures of military authority and obscure beats of dark comedy. This combination of Coen wit and Spielberg driven visuals allows Bridge of Spies to stand as something quite special for both sets of respected auteurs.
Bridge of Spies is one of the more wholly satisfying cinematic experiences of the year; it is simply a well crafted tale that revels in an engaging and complex moment in history with a confidence that perhaps only Spielberg can exude. The Spielberg-schmultz ending feels earned, a feat many of his films struggle to achieve. Compelling, entertaining, and filled with old school charm. 5/5