Short takes: Steve Jobs, Bridge of Spies & The Martian

Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs — I was pleasantly surprised that Steve Jobs was honed in on three specific product launches in the late Apple prodigy’s life rather than a straightforward biopic.  There are flashbacks to key moments in his past, but they come in at spontaneous and fitting moments.  Each launch captures the personal and professional turmoil in Jobs’ life, and their pacing is unrelenting. The movie doesn’t shy away from how much of an asshole he was, though it does give him an overly sappy, redeeming conclusion.  Michael Fassbender captures his opportunism and arrogance, and the movie is able to make him sympathetic by focusing largely on his failures.

Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay, a rapid-fire burst of bitterness, denial and outright cruelty, is the true star of the movie.  This is both a good and a bad thing; the dialogue is brilliant, and delivered at such a breakneck pace that it’s often overwhelming, especially with Daniel Pemberton’s feverish score.  However, this also means Steve Jobs never really leaps off the page.  Sorkin, Fassbender and director Danny Boyle tap into Jobs’ magnetism, but it feels too calculated.  The dialogue sparkles, but other than a board meeting during a rain storm or a feverish crowd waiting for Jobs to take the stage, the images almost never do.   Grade: C

Bridge of Spies

Bridge of SpiesSteven Spielberg’s late ’50s Cold War drama Bridge of Spies hinges on the suspense of Tom Hanks’ charisma.  As the insurance lawyer James B. Donovan, Hanks’ on screen likability is turned against him when his firm votes him to defend a suspected Soviet spy (A wry, excellent Mark Rylance).  It’s a sham trial; the judge, the prosecution and the general public all know that. However, Donovan is determined to give the man his all, and in the process he finds his country turning on him.

Bridge of Spies explores the dangers of mistaking patriotism for blind paranoia. One of the movie’s most astonishing moments comes right before the spy’s guilty verdict, as a classroom of school children, one of whom is Donovan’s son, recites the Pledge of Allegiance before an abrupt cut to an Atomic bomb exploding on an in-class video.  Donovan is able to negotiate with the judge not to give the spy the death penalty, and is subsequently recruited by the CIA to unofficially negotiate swapping him for an American pilot who was captured behind enemy lines.

This is Spielberg’s second film in a row to hone in on a master tactician, and as in Lincoln he has the supreme confidence to let the many long, forceful scenes of negotiation play out.  Bridge of Spies reverberates with suspense because the movie isn’t in a hurry and Donovan is so casual; the chilled, sun-less Soviet interiors don’t scare him.  The movie lost me only a couple times, when Thomas Newman’s score swelled to almost unbearably sentimental levels during scenes that would have been better without it.  That sentimentality comes back to haunt the movie in the end, though, as Donovan’s warm feelings of approval from his fellow bus passengers is interrupted by reminders of death and despair he witnessed on a train thousands of miles away.  Grade: B

The Martian

The Martian- There were times I wasn’t sure I wanted Matt Damon to make it off of Mars.  His charismatic botanist Mark Watney has the makings of a YouTube sensation, and all of the charming and annoying possibilities that come with that.  After being struck by debris during a storm on Mars and thought dead by his crew, Watney maintains his sanity by developing and maintaining an online persona and hoping with everything that he has that someone might one day see it.  He chronicles his fight to survive while lambasting disco and saying things like “I’m going to have to science the shit out of this,” into his NASA video log.

Watney wakes up alone and pierced by a piece of metal, and must find a way to contact Earth and survive long enough for someone to come get him.  Once he’s able to do that, the movie becomes an extended race against the clock that takes place over several hundred days, with Mark’s attempts at survival mixed with a larger ensemble drama back at NASA.  Watney and the grand, endless red vistas of Mars disappear for large chunks of The Martian as the crew back home develops an increasingly more desperate plan to keep him and their reputation alive.  Each step in Watney’s rescue is analyzed in terms of how it can be sold to the press and the public.

Director Ridley Scott keeps the movie’s tonally disparate parts afloat and coherent, though Watney’s extended one-man show gets old as the movie wears on.   Its conclusion is a predictable crowd-pleaser, but it works because a big chunk of the movie seems to interrogate the cost of crowd pleasing.  This is a high-stakes, high budget movie about sustaining a brand.  Grade: C+

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