Whether you’re a fan of former president George W. Bush or not, you have to admit his term contained some profound low points, kicking off with 9/11 and ending in a nasty recession. You may or may not blame Bush himself for these and other pieces of unfortunate Americana in the 21st century, but let’s face it: as a nation, we’ve had better.
Several of the big blights the nation grappled with during the (second) Bush regime are reflected in films from the past 15 years, dealt with explicitly in Farenheit 9/11, Recount, United 93 and Oliver Stone’s W., and more subtextually in Munich or 25th Hour (or any number of others). It’s only about now, though, that we’re able to step back and see things in context, which is why we’re getting movies that deal with these themes at a smaller, more intimate level. We’ve seen a lot of movies about the forest. Now we’re seeing the ones that are about the trees.
99 Homes centers on the financial debacle Bush dropped in Obama’s lap on his way out of the Oval Office. The 2008 recession has been the subject of a few films already, of course — we saw it from a Wall Street’s point of view in Margin Call, way up high at skyscraper level. Now 99 Homes gives us a ground’s eye view: the perspective of the families forced to relinquish their homes to the very banks who effed up in lending to them in the first place. Andrew Garfield plays Dennis Nash, a construction worker facing hard times because in 2008, there isn’t a whole lot of new construction going on. Nash has a mortgage on the home he grew up in and still lives in with his mom Lynn (Laura Dern) and son Connor (Noah Lomax). Then, one day, they’re out on the street, with only a few dollars in their pockets. Theirs is not an uncommon plight.
Nash is resourceful enough to find a (literally) shitty job cleaning up a house its owners left riddled with feces as a “fuck you” to the bank. Real estate mogul Rick Carver (Michael Shannon) takes a shine to Dennis’ plucky attitude and recruits him for some shady but lucrative dealings. Dennis is a good guy at heart, but he ultimately doesn’t have a lot of qualms about screwing the system that screwed him first. Soon, Nash has the cash to buy his family home back — or buy a dreamy mansion, as he is tempted and seduced by the very factors that got him in trouble in the first place. Carver advises him to not get sentimental about real estate, but that doesn’t end up being very good advice. Despite the way it may look on paper, homes are not just the boxes we reside in. They contain our whole lives.Carver is a bastard and he knows it, but as the film unfolds, the twisted logic he uses to justify his riches starts making a lot of sense, both to Dennis and to us in the audience. Michael Shannon takes pleasure in this dirty, greasy rich prick role, the way Shannon manages to sink his teeth into despicable villain roles that many actors would be afraid to take. Dern is unfortunately underused, beginning in “worried mom” mode and never permitted to go beyond it. Buying Garfield as a low-income construction worker takes a moment to get used to, but he ably carries the film once we settle into the story.
Directed by Ramin Bahrani, 99 Homes has moments of life-and-death suspense, but the real tension comes from scenes in which we see everyday Americans fight the powers that be — the bankers, the government, the police — to save their homes… and lose, over and over. These people did nothing wrong, except believe in the myth of the American dream, listen to the “authorities,” and follow the road map every middle class American is handed, telling us we’re supposed to buy houses, and cars, and whatever else we can get our hands on. It’s practically a birthright — or it seemed that way, before it became painfully obvious that no one in this scheme knew exactly what they were doing. It’s a horrible injustice.
Unfortunately, Bahrani’s plot takes a slightly more conventional and melodramatic turn toward the end of 99 Homes than it really needed to, as if it didn’t trust that the stakes were high enough when it was just ordinary people faced with greed and corruption and a very broken system. This is a horror most of us already lived through, at some level — if we didn’t lose a home, perhaps we lost a job or our sense of security. Its setting in the very recent past injects 99 Homes with more urgency than you’d usually get from this sort of drama. A couple of Michael Shannon’s juicier monologues spell out this movie’s themes, but we didn’t really need them to. We’ve been living those themes since 2008.A similar but much higher profile injustice is explored in Truth, the dramatization of news producer Mary Mapes’ eventual firing by CBS following a 60 Minutes segment that questioned George W. Bush’s military service. The issues raised by Mapes and Dan Rather have a lot of legitimacy and are worthy of investigation, but instead the public gets hung up on whether or not CBS got fooled by forged documents. The point of the piece gets completely lost amidst all the nitpicking, and Mapes, Rather, and a handful of others lose their jobs due to bureaucracy and implied pressures from the Bush administration.
George W. Bush ends up being the villain in this movie without even being seen in it; he’s probably not directly responsible for any of this, but we never actually see the minions do their bidding. By the time it gets down to Mapes, the ill will has been funneled through a number of levels, which only adds to the feeling of helplessness she (and we) feel against The System. In the third act, Mapes is scrutinized and demonized by a committee of conservative lawyers who are hell-bent on uncovering Mapes’ “radical liberal” agenda, standing in for a large segment of the population who holds the same beliefs. (And whom we can thank for voting for Bush. Twice.) As its in-your-face title may suggest, Truth is not terribly subtle about the issues it’s exploring. Like 99 Homes, it feels the urge to monologue its Big Ideas, with plenty of grandstanding about journalistic integrity and corporate corruption along the way.
This is Zodiac writer James Vanderbilt’s first foray into directing. The result is that a few scenes work like gangbusters, while others come off as a bit stagey. A key component of Truth‘s more successful moments, of course, is Cate Blanchett as Mary Mapes, who proves that she can deliver a near-Oscar caliber performance in just about anything. Any time Blanchett and Robert Redford, who plays Rather, are on screen together, the film gets an electric charge from its high-wattage stars. The film contains a host of other recognizable faces in smaller roles — Dennis Quaid, Elisabeth Moss, Dermot Mulroney, Stacy Keach, Topher Grace — but they don’t all fare as well as Blanchett and Redford, since they’re mostly saddled with exposition and monologues. It’s impossible not to compare Truth to another tale of 60 Minutes segments gone haywire, Michael Mann’s The Insider, one of the all-time great films about journalism. Blanchett is every bit as good here as Al Pacino was there, but Truth spends so much time examining the Big Issues that it never quite gets around to developing its characters as individual human beings. Ultimately, the ideas on Vanderbilt’s mind end up being more compelling than the execution.A third film delving into fairly recent Americana is Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs. This one is set closer to George H.W. Bush’s reign than his son’s, however. (It takes place in 1984, 1988, and 1998, thereby avoiding the first Bush presidency altogether, despite its proximity.) There’s nothing terribly political about Steve Jobs, of course, except that it leaves us on the eve of the tech revolution that introduced the iMac to consumers, kicking off a whole wave of innovation that would bring us the iPod, iPhone, and iPad — all of which changed modern life as we know it. Technically set in the past, Steve Jobs is very much about the now. It’s the kind of movie that wouldn’t work at all unless we all knew what happened after.
Predictably, Steve Jobs feels like a spiritual sequel to The Social Network — or technically, a prequel, since without Steve Jobs there is no Mark Zuckerberg. Both films were written by Aaron Sorkin. Both play fast and loose with facts. Both portray their subjects as ego-maniacal assholes who push away the people they love (or the people they should love) in favor of unbridled genius. This is a particularly dicey position to take with Jobs, a man who is essentially worshipped, perhaps the closest we’ve come to a modern deity. You can write Mark Zuckerberg off as a spoiled whippersnapper who got lucky, if you wish, but with Steve Jobs, it’s more complicated. Jobs really worked before he was able to change the world.
As concocted by Sorkin, Steve Jobs unfolds in three theatrical acts, each revolving around the same handful of characters buzzing in and out of Jobs’ orbit just before he embarks on one of his now-infamous product launches. It’s a nifty gimmick, one that’s obviously meant to be taken with a grain of salt, given that there’s not a chance in hell any of these events actually unfolded as depicted here. This is an excuse for Sorkin to do what he does best, which is to portray very smart, very articulate professionals in their workplace, spouting ideas that say more about the macro state of the world than they do about any of them as individuals.
Steve Jobs isn’t all that much about Steve Jobs, the same way The Social Network wasn’t exactly about Mark Zuckerburg or Sean Parker, and Citizen Kane isn’t really about William Randolph Hearst. The Social Network‘s main takeaway was about loneliness in the digital age, and the central irony that no amount of virtual “friendship” can truly replace person-to-person intimacy. It depicted a shift in the power balance between the old guard of moneyed upper-crusters to pajamaed freshmen who could make millions without leaving their dorm rooms — a shift that would never have been possible without Steve Jobs. Most of us would agree that Jobs was ahead of the curve, but Steve Jobs depicts him as so ahead of the curve, he’s all but clairvoyant.
In its first act, Jobs is frustrated with the limits of the Macintosh computer, which refuses to say “Hello” as it’s programmed to do; this is crucial because the computer needs to appear friendly and appealing to consumers, and not like the emotionless killer people have in mind thanks largely to HAL9000 of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Ironically, the second act has Jobs unveiling the NeXT computer, a charmless black cube reminiscent of 2001’s mysterious Monolith. Ultimately, neither the Macintosh nor NeXT is a sustainable venture, which leads to the fun and frisky iMac launch of 1998, which we all know turned out just dandy.
But Steve Jobs suggests that it wasn’t just that the iMac had the right look and feel to appeal to the mass market, but that Jobs was essentially just waiting all along for technology to catch up to him. Ultimately, computers couldn’t be a staple in every home until there was a reason for them to be, and that reason was, of course, the internet. Steve Jobs didn’t explicitly know how the internet would start shaping our lives in the 90s, but intuitively he was aware that something like this would create a demand for his products. He was just a little too early with his ideas, and had to wait for the rest of the world to catch up.
Boyle gives us only hints of glimpses at the tech obsessives who made Jobs a god for the 21st century — stamping their feet and hollering for their deity, though the film focuses exclusively on Jobs’ closest confidantes and family. Despite posing Jobs as a prickly mogul who sacrificed personal relationships for his status as one of the most influential innovators of all time, the film is ultimately optimistic about all the wonderful toys Jobs left us with, treating technology not as a harbinger of doom the way it’s portrayed in most movies, but as something that is ultimately poised to bring human beings closer together.
Steve Jobs spends a lot of time on Jobs’ non-relationship with his daughter Lisa, who he refuses to acknowledge is his daughter in the film’s earliest segment. This is obviously tied to his complicated feelings about his own biological parents, who gave him up for adoption. It’s an echo of the way Zuckerberg isolates his friends in The Social Network, but in Steve Jobs, technology is the link that allows Jobs to connect with his daughter, rather than what comes between them. Jobs cherishes Lisa’s childhood drawing on a rudimentary paint program more than any time actually spent with her; a teenage Lisa’s Walkman inspires him to create a device that will allow her to carry a thousand songs instead of just one album. As wondrous as technology is, in Steve Jobs, it is ultimately only as magnificent as what people can do with it. A computer is just a machine until we turn it on and use it for something incredible. Jobs’ Macs evolve in a way that mirrors Lisa’s own development, but Steve Jobs‘ third act in particular spends a lot more time on the people than the product.Steve Jobs is basically a mash-up of the themes explored in The Social Network and Moneyball, which occasionally make it play more like Aaron Sorkin’s Greatest Hits than a brand new movie standing on its own two feet. There’s sparkling banter and a constant flurry of activity from characters who never sit still but also never go anywhere; the same effect could be achieved for a fraction of the budget if Sorkin just put everyone on a treadmill. Aaron Sorkin has never not been Aaron Sorkin and Steve Jobs is no exception, but the crackling dialogue still contains as much genuine insight into the human condition as it does nifty zingers. As in 99 Homes and Truth, there are on-the-nose monologues that essentially spell out the themes Boyle and Sorkin are dealing with — but nobody does a monologue like Aaron Sorkin, so Steve Jobs can get away with it in a way that those others don’t quite pull off.
In the end, social networks may be slightly juicier cinematic material than the machines that deliver them to us, and so The Social Network will be the more enduring masterpiece. David Fincher had just the right sensibility to mitigate some of Sorkin’s most Sorkinian qualities, and while Daniel Pemberton’s score is plenty good, it’s not going to change the cinematic soundscape the way that Trent Reznor and Atticus Roth did. Boyle does good work here, but also adds a few stylistic flourishes that feel like overkill in a film that’s already so heightened. (Hello, rocket ship! Where did you come from?) The third act focuses too heavily on wrapping up the Lisa story, and the film’s final moments are possibly more upbeat than they needed to be, ending on a Jobs-as-rock-star moment the movie has up until this point wisely avoided.
Steve Jobs has disappointed in wide release, which somewhat mars its chances for major awards consideration — though it’s definitely still in the running. The sterling cast — mainly, Kate Winslet, Jeff Daniels, and Michael Fassbender — all have shots at Oscar nods, and Sorkin’s screenplay seems like a shoo-in. Steve Jobs is ultimately a fascinating look at the dawning of the modern age, its subject matter coming across as both ancient and current simultaneously. It sure is quaint that a computer saying “Hello” used to be a big deal, isn’t it? But at the same time, most of us have witnessed this revolution with our own eyes. And it’s still happening. There’s something almost spooky about seeing the birth of our era brought to life in this way, by a man both out of touch with basic human emotion and eerily prescient about what humans would want and need in the near future. Steve Jobs tells us only a little about who Steve Jobs was. It says a lot more about who we are.