Tag Archives: Steve Jobs

Jackie and the New Art of the Biopic

jackie-film

The biopic remains one of Hollywood’s most enduring genres. Fitted with expected ideas of heroism and triumph over adversity, the chance to play one of history’s most important figures is often irresistible for an actor and whether dressed-up in period costume or shedding light on more recent times the biopic reinforces the centrality of individuals in shaping particular events. In the last few years, however, several directors have sought a fresh approach, moving away from the traditional biopic model of birth > hardship > greatness > death > immortality, to something considerably more complex and time-limited, exploring the fallibility of their subject and the cost of their determination.

In Jackie Pablo Larrain joins this new wave of biopic directors with his multi-Oscar nominated tale of America’s most famous First Lady, Jacqueline Kennedy which examines the week following the assassination of her husband. Cutting back and forth between various days, we’re shown the fractured and uncertain period that led to President Kennedy’s funeral, watching as Jackie sees her husband murdered next to her – an act that in a second took her from most important woman in America to powerless private citizen – making plans to leave the White House with her children and taking control of the Kennedy legacy with an elaborate funeral procession and an interview with a leading journalist, though none of this takes place in order.

Watching Jackie as a concept, there are striking similarities with Danny Boyle’s 2015 Steve Jobs which, although not a major hit at the box office, was highly critically acclaimed and will come to be regarded as something of a modern masterpiece so adept was its shake-up of the genre. Biopics have long been about the lead actor having an opportunity to bid for award glory, and while the setting can be period-perfect, there’s not always that much meat on the secondary characters or exciting directorial elements to distract from the leading role.

But Steve Jobs was very different, not just in limiting its focus to three product launches but utilising a more theatrical approach to character and inserting the lead into a series of semi-recurring duologues with the fully-fleshed out people he had been close to. Character flaws were writ large, not swept under the carpet, as he bombarded and bulldozed his way through people’s objections and needs, and at no point do you think the character of Steve Jobs (Michael Fassbender) presented in this film was any kind of hero as a traditional biopic would try to paint him. But what you do understand is that unpleasant though that was these particular traits were a fundamental precursor to his business success that came with a personal cost. You could hate him, most of the people he interacts with in the film don’t like him very much, but they admired him nonetheless.

Larrain has achieved a similar dynamic with Jackie as Natalie Portman’s character strives to create and defend a mythology in the hours and days after the assassination. It’s a film that also has much in common with Peter Landesman’s 2013 film Parkland which used a number of similar techniques to cover exactly the same period but followed the doctors, Secret Service agents and ordinary people of Dallas, including the man that captured the famous footage of the shooting, in the week after the assassination. A companion piece to Parkland then, we first see Jackie as the nervous but sweet Mrs Kennedy hosting a documentary tour around the White House on television, introducing the American people to the furnishings and historic artefacts she has taken some trouble, and great expense, to restore. Beneath the sugary resolve there is steel however and Portman excels at portraying a woman shocked and overcome by grief but still able to take the necessary steps to preserve their three year image as fairy-tale leaders. This is not the sweet fashion horse we’ve come to know but someone who is aware she has a tiny window of opportunity to create the Camelot myth and preserve her husband’s legacy amidst the White House treasures, before she and her family are unceremoniously turfed out.

As with the presentation of Steve Jobs, Jackie herself is highly imperfect and while there are tender moments as she breaks the news to her children, washes blood from her hair, is comforted by her brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) or discusses her two lost children with her priest (a brilliant John Hurt in one of his final performances), she is also capable of incredible calculation at the most surprising moments. In one key scene, arriving back in Washington, her attendees offer to help her change but Jackie insists on stepping off the plane to meet the journalists and crowds, as well as walking back into the White House still wearing the splattered Chanel suit from Dallas, with her husband’s blood thickly smeared across the skirt from holding his dying head in her lap.

In her scenes with The Journalist, an excellent Billy Crudup, a week later she is the epitome of rehearsed calm and poise, but still slightly deadened from the shock. Yet she’s still playing-the-game, giving him morsels of juicy gossip and then refusing to let him use them; she wants him to know she knows the truth about her husband’s adultery and dodgy friends, but she chose to be somebody important and his philandering was just the cost of that. Portman and Larrain have cleverly detached Jackie from the years and layers of JFK’s own personality, death and conspiracy theories, to give her life and purpose of her own, not just the politician’s wife, but a woman who eventually breaks down in private, drinking, smoking (which The Journalist is not allowed to report) and saying goodbye to all the dresses and occasions she’d known as First Lady. Like Steve Jobs, Jackie was creating something that would exist beyond herself and the way character is revealed to the audience in both these movies is an important new direction for the biopic genre.

Central performances aside, what also separates these films from the pack is the way in which Boyle and Larrain avoid twee period-drama to give their characters a dynamic and richly detailed thematic setting. One of the joys of Steve Jobs as a film was the integration of visual elements of theatre and design that give insight into Jobs’s aesthetic concerns with beauty and simplicity, alongside the technological images that made aspects of the film seems as though they were taking place inside a computer. For example, backstage at the Opera House in the second launch, Jobs talks to his daughter on a gantry above a sea of cables and coloured lights, while at other times Boyle shows light reflecting from acoustic diffusors and through screens which feel like an operating system. Every image, every single detail has been carefully crafted to shape our perceptions of character, to see a fusion of art, culture and technology that was important to Jobs and his success. This attempt to couch the themes of the film in something other than the central character’s dialogue, allowing us to see the hand of the director, is an important shift in biopic production.

Larrain achieves the same effect in Jackie creating a visual world around her that aptly reflects and reinforces the semi-fictional image of her marriage she wants to present. In the vast maze-like grandeur of the White House, historic and beautifully appointed, Jackie must be worthy of it and make herself part of its history. But it’s a rather austere home, almost clinically clean and preserved, yet it reflects who Jackie becomes by the end, beautiful and perfect on the surface but home to a collection of painful experiences, of deaths and constant endings. Here, as with the borrowed home she meets The Journalist in, everything is remote, not quite relaxed. “Nothing’s ever mine, not to keep” Jackie explains at one point, and you see that in the house too, no one ever stays for long, there’s always someone else to come, and Larrain gives that same sense of transitory ownership, of the White House dwarfing Jackie as she wanders around its corridors alone. For the new biopic then, setting is carefully created as character study, not just a factually accurate creation, but intrinsically part of what the film has to say and how it reflects the personalities and themes under discussion.

The new biopic is then all about scrutiny, not allowing its complicatedly human subjects to escape the critical glare of the viewer. Heroism isn’t the point anymore and while we may still appreciate an individual’s value and importance at the end of the movie, it is balanced by ideas of their frailty, darkness and blindness as well. These dynamically-directed, time-limited complex character-studies are far more than blanket tributes to the achievements of the famous, instead their newly fractured form, tells us that people are difficult, that they achieve great things but they lie or behave badly to cement their place in history. Steve Jobs and Jackie are important markers of a new wave of biopic production that not only examines the power of the individual life, but in the combination of various artistic and story-telling techniques, become a skilled and insightful piece of film-making as well.

Jackie is in cinemas now. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1      

Advertisements

Steve Jobs – London Film Festival

Source: Universal Pictures

In the history of technology failure is as important as success, if not more so. What innovators and technicians learn when a product fails, and the drive it gives them to succeed the next time is immensely important. For too long historians of technology have only focused on key moments, the mileposts and markers of change that predicate a new age – the steam engine, the aeroplane, the nuclear bomb – as if somehow these things just pop into existence one day and revolutionise everything that has come before. But for every product that succeeds there have been thousands of failures that feed into the refining and redesigning of the next iteration. Steve Jobs, which had its European premiere at the London Film Festival last night, takes you on that journey from product failure to eventual success, and showcases the ambition, ruthlessness and self-belief required to succeed.

Like Suffragette (LFF’s Opening Night Gala), Steve Jobs can be viewed in two ways; how valuable an insight does it give us into the times in which it’s set taking in the personalities, events and encounters it depicts, and, at a different level, what value does it have as technological film. Its story is grouped around three product launches, the Macintosh in 1984, the NeXT cube in 1988 and ends with the iMac in 1998. The first failed and cost Jobs (Michael Fassbender) his position at Apple, ousted by the Board, after which he developed the NeXT cube which also tanked, both of which Danny Boyle’s film cleverly implies ultimately resulted in the success of the iMac and proved Jobs’s genius after 14 years. The story is far more than a tale of machines and the human element is added using Jobs’s contentious interactions with former Apple CEO John Scully (Jeff Daniels), colleague Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogan) and the daughter he long refused to accept, Lisa.

There are many compelling things about this film but perhaps the most surprising given its subject matter is how theatrical it felt. Performed in three acts and with Aaron Sorkin’s famously wordy dialogue it felt like you were watching an elaborate play that cleverly builds the tension throughout, giving you explosive conversations in each act before building to a semi-resolution in the last. It doesn’t take us up to the present day or through the eventual consequences of Jobs’s victory, but carefully leaves you with the idea that the development of technology never ends, that for an innovator the launch of a new product is not the end of the process but the beginning of a new one. Having a day job in a Business School meant, for me, that the film’s notions of innovation management, product development and marketing were resonant and in many ways give a flavour of both the cut-and-thrust of business, as well as the excitement of working in developing fields.

Being a Danny Boyle film also means it also has his recognisable stamp in terms of the use of light, colour and cultural references, plus an effectively mixed soundtrack. Each section of the film is shot as if it belongs to its particularly era which gave it a docu-history effect that worked really nicely. Boyle also used a lot of backstage shots of lighting rigs and scenery, as well as the grand sweep of the auditoria used for the launches, which reinforced Sorkin’s theatre-like script. Peppered throughout we also get the sense of Jobs’s love of aesthetics with art and music in particular playing a huge role in explaining his preference for slinky design. He’s seen presenting his products to the world in the San Francisco Opera House where he conducts a conversation in the orchestra pit, describing himself as a conductor who ‘plays the orchestra.’ We also see him at the NeXT launch removing a bunch of flowers from beside the cube and replacing them with lilies which he has handpicked from a dinner table somewhere else in the building because the shot is more pleasing to him with a sleeker-shaped flower. These are all tiny touches or even background to the emotional dramas being played out effectively ‘up-stage’, but the consistency of the design and character actions is nicely realised.

Fassbender has already generated a considerable degree of Oscar buzz for this role and (unsurprisingly) it is entirely deserved. Jobs is not a likeable character, he’s rude, arrogant, condescending and often irascible but while those qualities could have made him entirely repellent, Fassbender offers so many layers of performance that you simultaneously begin to understand the kind of person Jobs had to be to succeed. The incredible self-belief and refusal to hear others, to see events from anything but his own perspective seem here as necessary evils that eventually lead to his success. The relationship with his daughter Lisa is also incredibly nuanced and while his behaviour seems cruel, Fassbender also contrasts this with his own buried feelings of parental rejection (Jobs was adopted), isolation and of just genuinely not understanding other people’s emotional responses and why they can’t put them aside.  He’s an incredibly intuitive actor who thoroughly embodies every character he plays which brings a rare level of intensity to the screen and here he punches out Sorkin’s dialogue with incredible conviction. So much so that given the hoo hah which accompanied the making of this film and Fassbender’s last minute sign-up, you wonder if it would have worked so well without him. He so dominates the screen that when he’s not there, you are just waiting for him to come back and in places Sorkin’s script feels overwritten because Fassbender can, and does, produce a single look that obviates the need for the next 10 lines of dialogue. So in less than a month that’s two astonishing Oscar-worthy performances, although I actually hope he gets recognised for Macbeth which just has the edge as a complete film.

There’s good support from Seth Rogan as Steve Wozniak, Jobs’s colleague and friend from the days they worked from their garage. The film also explores the fascinating relationship between these two men and doesn’t really take sides, so while Jobs comes off quite badly in their early scenes, during their major final confrontation we see the petty jealousy and longing for recognition that Wozniak has born for 14 years but was unable to achieve without the ambitious qualities Jobs possessed. Jeff Daniels, after a stint in Sorkin’s The Newsroom, plays the man who supposedly fired Steve Jobs from Apple after the failure of the Macintosh and the two play a cleverly directed scene set in 1988 as a Sculley-Jobs confrontation is interspersed with flashback scenes of the original rainy night emergency Board meeting where we learn who was really responsible for forcing that decision. Finally Kate Winslet is a constant presence as Joanna Hoffman who was Job’s Marketing Director and friend, although closer to a personal assistant / counsellor in this film. It doesn’t really explore their relationship or why she continued to work for someone so difficult or how reliant he was on her. Winslet’s accent didn’t seem to exist in the 1984 section but became more pronounced in the 1988 and 1998 sections but otherwise she is a very good support figure, almost part of the background but a constant presence and control.

On the red carpet of the LFF’s Closing Night Gala Michael Fassbender made the point that this film is not a biopic but a dramatisation, and one that compresses numerous events and relationships into 3 convenient slots. It is the nature of filmmaking that a lot will be left out and conversations imagined in order to give the story greater depth. In presenting all this information in an unconventional way, Boyle directs with energy and purpose, nicely capturing the emotional intensity and frayed tempers that would seem natural in the frantic minutes before a product launch, and it certainly seems fitting that an film about an inventor should have an innovative set-up. Arguably it’s a little too reverential towards the end but then with a sea of iphones taking pictures of the cast and Boyle on stage it’s hard to make a case against the impact of Jobs on modern technology. Some of the computer-talk may have gone over my head but the quality of the performances and the design make Steve Jobs compelling viewing. Most impressively, it’s a film that is absolutely right in its comments on the nature of technological development and the huge effort involved in developing those rare successes that just might go on to become a sensation.

Steve Jobs was shown at the London Film Festival and opens in UK cinemas on 13 November. Follow this blog on Twitter: @culturalcap1


%d bloggers like this: