Sunday, November 29, 2015

STEVE JOBS (2015): Biopic of Ruthless Tech Giant

The protagonist in Steve Jobs is seemingly as unpleasant as any individual can be for someone not in prison.  For many years he attempts to deny paternity concerning his daughter Lisa  (played at differing ages by Makenzie Moss, Ripley Sobo and Perla Haney-Jardine) and only grudgingly pays support after first publicly humiliating Lisa’s mother.  Steve Jobs (Michael Fassbender) fails to publicly acknowledge the debt he owes to his early partner, Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), and the designers behind the scene that make Apple Computers possible.  And he is extremely defensive about any information that may taint his professional reputation, and holds lasting grudges against any real or imagined slights.  Yet somehow his beleaguered assistant, Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet) manages to hold onto her position during three product launches including the release of the Macintosh in 1984, the NeXTcube in 1988, and the iMac in 1998.  Hoffman only does so by sacrificing her entire personal life.

Frankly, certain movie reviews were more interesting than the film itself – though not necessarily for the right reasons.  Reviewer Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times, for example, goes so far as to compare this film to a rendering of Shakespeare’s Macbeth.  Yet like the products that Steve Jobs launches, Hollywood will replace Steve Jobs with another biopic concerning some other technology mogul.  After all, we had a film biopic about Mark Zuckerberg just five years ago.

A.O. Scott, of the New York Times, does a better job than Turan of summing the film up.  While calling it a “less perfect movie” than The Social Network, Scott refers to Steve Jobs as “a more credible character study, and it leaves behind a fascinating residue of ambivalence.”  Yet even Scott can’t resist inflating the importance of this film.  He states in his review: “The accuracy of this portrait is not my concern. Cinematic biographies of the famous are not documentaries. They are allegories: narrative vessels into which meanings and morals are packed like raisins in an oatmeal cookie; modern, secular equivalents of medieval lives of the saints; cautionary tales and beacons of aspiration.”  While accuracy may not be his concern, it still needs to be a concern of film studios that may at some point face a libel suit for films like this.

Both reviewers, carried away by their willingness to make a point, speak in too great urgency about what is not a great film.  Unlike the film biopics of T.E. Lawence or George S. Patton, few movie viewers are going to want to see Steve Jobs a second time.  This movie has its faults.  Steve Jobs says little that is engaging about its lead character.  Also, the dialogue is almost too perfect to be believable with each insult and cutting remark leading into a culminating scene.  The roles played by Seth Rogen and Jeff Daniels are barely even supporting parts.  And the movie, transparently directed by Danny Boyle as a three-act play, begins and ends in circular fashion concerning Jobs’ relationship with his daughter. 

Nevertheless, this is mostly an intelligent film (intelligence being a relative term whenever speaking about movies).  The attributes of the movie include the acting of Fassbender, Winslet, Moss, Sobo and Haney-Jardine.  Whatever else its faults, the dialogue, written by Aaron Sorkin, generally advances the story.  The seminars that Jobs leads help the audience understand his popularity, which is much like the popularity of a cult leader.  The ending of the film, at first seemingly to be on too much of an upbeat note, is suitably ambiguous leaving us with neither a happy or sad ending.  The 122-minute film is also a compelling critique of American success when it wonders aloud whether it’s possible in corporate culture to be “decent and gifted at the same time.”

November 29, 2015

© Robert S. Miller 2015

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

BRIDGE OF SPIES (2015): Negotiations During The Cold War

Like many other Stephen Spielberg movies made since about the time he decided to inform rather than just entertain, Bridge of Spies is a well-choreographed and mildly funny film.  Except for Munich, possibly his least popular film to date, Spielberg seldom directs or produces any films that are controversial or particularly challenging.  His films generally espouse the values of living in a democratic society with a moderately liberal message thrown in for good measure.  Bridge of Spies is no exception.

As evidenced by his last two films, Spielberg relies heavily on the screenwriter to put together an intelligent and coherent script.  Tony Kushner wrote the screenplay for Lincoln in 2012, and Matt Charman and Ethan Coen wrote the screenplay for Bridge of Spies.  Spielberg also relies upon actors that can ably play their part.  Lincoln would have been far less successful without the screenplay and the tremendous acting talent of Daniel Day-Lewis.  Likewise, Bridge of Spies would probably have been a less than average movie without Mark Rylance playing the supporting role of Rudolf Abel, an alleged Russian spy during the late 1950s.

In the film (as in real life), Abel faced arrest for espionage in 1957.  A mild-mannered individual and amateur painter, he is also extremely intelligent, stoic, and likely guilty of everything charged.  Abel’s assigned an attorney, James Donovan (Tom Hanks), who the FBI, the local bar, Donovan’s wife and the presiding judge expects to put up a good defense right up to the time when Abel faces execution.  However, Donovan convinces the judge that it would be best not to execute Abel as he had value concerning a possible future prisoner swap with the Soviet Union.  Also, not taking Abel’s life may also motivate the Soviet Union to also not execute Americans charged with espionage in Russia.

Donovan so effectively represents Abel that he and his family face the hatred of the American public for his defending a Russian spy.  At least in the film version of this story, bullets are fired through the window of his house – just over the head of his teenage daughter who is watching television. (The overwrought protests taking place just outside of Donovan’s home are typical Hollywood.)  Yet Donovan takes Abel’s case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in an unsuccessful attempt to argue against the wrongful arrest of his client.  While not portrayed in the movie, he did also successfully argue before the court against any possible death sentence applied in Abel’s case.

Meanwhile, in 1960 Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) is shot down at 70,000 feet altitude over Russian soil in the infamous U-2 incident.  Donovan is now asked to step into negotiate a deal in East Berlin with the Russians and the Germans by proposing a trade of Abel for Powers.  Telling his wife he is going on a fishing trip, Donovan then heads to Berlin, gets himself involved in a variety of mishaps, and eventually negotiates for the release not only of Powers but also for an American college student named Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers).  Donovan not only needs to convince the Soviet Union of the wisdom of such a trade, he must also work with East German officials who are seriously offended by any inference their nation is a puppet government under the thumb of the Soviet regime, and therefore should not be at the negotiating table.  In any event, in 1962, due to Donovan’s successful negotiation tactics, Abel returns to Russia while Powers and Pryor came home to America. 

Bridge of Spies, 141 minutes in length, is another Spielberg film that was: “Inspired by actual events.”  This is his way of claiming to tell a true story while fudging on any detail that does not neatly fit into a pattern.  But while Spielberg tries very hard to tie up all loose ends, there’s too much we don’t know about the cold war for anyone to know precisely what took place regarding the release of Francis Gary Powers. 

Plus, for almost one half of the film, the filmmakers seem more intent on providing us a nostalgic look back at American life than telling us about a fascinating incident which occurs during the cold war – a time when the two great world powers were contemplating firing nuclear missiles at each other.  When Hanks, as Donovan, interacts with his onscreen family, Bridge of Spies borders on being a remake of a 1950s television family drama. 

Donovan, as played by Hanks, also seems too single-mindedly idealistic to accomplish what he actually did in life.  Donovan assisted Justice Robert Jackson while prosecuting Nazi war criminals in Nuremberg.  He met face-to-face with Allen Dulles, the former head of the CIA and Secretary of State during the Eisenhower Administration, to discuss negotiation strategies. He also argues an unpopular cause in front of the U.S. Supreme Court.  He later negotiated for the release of over 1,000 prisoners following the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion.  Because of Bridge of Spies, most individuals will now identify Donovan with a relatively bland portrayal by Tom Hanks.  Outside of Abel, no character in the film until near the end, seem impressed by Donovan’s intellect or accomplishments – including Donovan’s wife.

To be fair, Spielberg avoids sentimentalism whenever Rylance appears on the screen as Rudolf Abel.  Rylance recites many of his lines with comic understatement.  Despite being a Russian spy, we still sympathize with him as a human being.  We also clearly understand that he was doing a job that he may have believed in as much as Powers believed in his own role.

And as he always does, Spielberg is good in this movie at visually telling a story.  His going from middle-class America to East Berlin, still war-torn some fifteen years after World War II, looks precisely how we imagine East Berlin would have looked.

October 27, 2015
©  Robert S. Miller 2015

Sunday, September 27, 2015

TIDINGS OF CALM AND STORM: My Published Short Story Collection

I published my second full-length work, Tidings of Calm and Storm, on September 20, 2015.  This is a short story collection that I have been putting together over a long period of time.  The book’s description is as follows:

Tidings of Calm and Storm contains a dozen short stories of Midwest life in the U.S. throughout the 20th Century. Every story here is concise, intelligent and clearly written. This collection starts with a stark and violent stopover in "Indian Joe," and ends with a mysterious sojourn taken by the protagonist in "Communing With Angels."

Though we can read each story separately, all of the stories are interconnected. The author once described the story "From Sparks to Flame" as being "about a harsh but potentially magical world that is slowly being gutted-out by small-mindedness." Other stories in this volume express a similar theme. However, through reading every story and coming to understand the various perspectives of all of the characters, we also sense that the world's magic is still within reach.

On the back cover of the book, I explain that the theme of many of the stories is the same as theme of my novel, As Sparks Fly Upward.  In the novel, I was highly critical of the hypocrisy of individuals you put on display of being moral and religious.  I think I did this effectively, though not every reader has been pleased with the narrator in the novel – who often was a bit of a hypocrite as well.  I tried a different approach with the short stories in Tidings of Calm and Storm.  Unlike the narrator of my novel, certain protagonists in the short story have hope and believe decency still exists.  In the stories, I tried to make every word, comma and period count.

You can find purchase information regarding Tidings of Calm and Storm at the following URL:

If you’re interested in my novel, As Sparks Fly Upward, you can find purchase information at:

Finally, I now have an author page with combined information regarding my fictional works at:

I hope for my next full-length writing project to be a work of literary criticism where I seek to bring a bit of sanity back to literary studies.  This may take awhile.

Robert S. Miller

September 27, 2015

©  Robert S. Miller 2015