Steve Jobs Biopic a Mid-Range Design

Directed by Danny Boyle
Universal Pictures, 122 minutes, R (language)
* * *

I'm typing this review of my Mac. I also own an iPhone, an iPad, and an iPod. Nonetheless, I have never have bought into iHype. For me, Mac products are just tools that are reliable and work across various platforms. I don't give a sqwanker's farley how elegant they look atop my desk or in my back pocket–I just want them to be useful hammers. In like fashion, I never thought Steve Jobs (1955-2011) was an infallible genius, so a revisionist film about him doesn't shatter my worldview.

Michael Fassbender was nominated for an Oscar for his titular role in Steve Jobs. He didn't win and shouldn't have—he did a very nice job (world play intended) but it wasn't an earth-moving performance. Nor did this film make the cosmos quake. It's perfectly competent and has some fine moments, but its major achievement is to walk up to the edge of histrionics and pull back just in time.

Steve Jobs is not a conventional biopic, rather it centers on three big moments in Jobs' career, two flops and a prodigal son return act. We first encounter Jobs as an obsessed bully moments before the 1984 launch of Macintosh. He hurls threats and insults at everyone as if these will magically get a crashed OS to say "Hello" when he introduces the first Macintosh to an audience waiting for him to deliver on the change-the-world promise of Apple's now legendary 1984 Super Bowl ad. All that changed was that Jobs didn't get to trash the profitable Apple II or get his way in a showdown with CEO John Sculley (Jeff Daniels). Instead, he got fired.

We meet Jobs again in 1988, as he prepares to debut NeXT, an almost perfect cube that had everything you'd want in a computer, except that it cost a sultan's fortune and didn't yet have a working OS. He did, however, predict Apple would have to buy NeXT for that very operating system, hence we see him for a third time in 1998 as readies the unveiling of the iMac G3, the machine that really did revolutionize personal computing. It was the moment in which Steve Jobs became Apple and Apple became Steve Jobs.  

Most of the rest of Jobs' life—the script is culled from Walter Isaacson's 2011 biography—emerges in snippets and flashbacks: the hippie-meets-libertarian days in which he, Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg), and Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogan) built the first Mac; his troubled relationships with Chrissann Brennan (Katherine Waterston) and  with their daughter, Lisa; the unconvincing denials that it bothered him that he was adopted; and the various ways in which he systematically alienated those closest to him. Jobs emerges as a flesh-and-blood analog to Mr. Data—more machine than human being. The story's tragic heroine is Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), the long-suffering advertising executive who remains faithful to Jobs, even as he is self-destructing.

If you want a saintly Steve Jobs, steer clear of this film. He comes off mainly as egoistical, oblivious, deceitful, abusive, and paternally inept. From what I glean from Isaacson, these things are largely true–Jobs was always a bit of snake oil salesman who was neither programmer nor designer, just a great pitchman for ideas implemented by others. And he really was a jerk much of the time. If, on the other hand, you're fine with needed revisionism, the film has its virtues. There are superb moments that capture the cult-like behavior of the wired, hipster crowd—the ones who do buy into iHype. Plus, there are several superior performances, especially that of Ms. Winslet, who walks the fine line between vulnerable and fierce. Seth Rogan finally gets a meaty part and proves himself worthy of it. Jeff Daniels is also solid as a CEO who knows when to charm, when to stand firm, and when to cut his losses.

Some of the biographical details are Hollywoodized. Hoffman did not carry the implied torch for Jobs; others, not Jobs, forced Sculley out of Apple; Jobs' biological father was a Syrian Ph.D. student, not a restaurateur; and Jobs' wife and other three children don't even get a mention. Moreover, the film's episodic structure compresses too much vileness into too short a time frame, which serves to make Jobs more unlikable than is fair and doesn't make plausible the reevaluation of his life we are supposed to think is on the horizon. 

I guess not everything Mac can he hyped, though. This film hasn't generated the passion of a new product launch, and has earned back just a little over half of its $30 million budget. The lack of buzz is also oddly appropriate. The film is worth watching, but think of it as more mid-range Dell than iMac G3. –Rob Weir


Hochschild's Book on Spain Appeals on All Levels

Spain in Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939
Adam Hochschild
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 464 pages, 2016

This review first appeared on www.nepca.wordpress.com 

Humankind is often blind to irony, but history is not. I was just pages from finishing Adam Hochschild's searing look at the Spanish Civil War when I came upon his comment that there was but a single living survivor of the Lincoln Brigade–those 2,800 Americans who went to Spain to try to preserve the Spanish Republic. It was no small feat to be a survivor—better than a third of those idealistic black and white young men (and a handful of women) died in the conflict, a higher casualty rate than any other group. The very morning (March 6) I read Hochschild's line, the Boston Globe ran the obituary of that last survivor, 100-year-old Delmer Berg.

We owe Mr. Hochschild a debt for making sure that we don't forget the causes and motives that animated individuals such as Mr. Berg, one the many for whom the Spanish conflict the "the defining experience of their lives." (1%) Hochschild is too learned to add his voice to the legions that romanticize the Lincolns. Berg, like the book's Aristotelian tragic hero Bob Merriman, was a devoted communist. Hochschild does a superb job of explaining why individuals like Merriman, the dashing UCal economics professor who commanded the Lincoln Brigade, were drawn to the communist Popular Front. Call it a combination of realism and idealism. In the midst of the Great Depression it wasn't hard to imagine that capitalism had failed or that Soviet-style communism–less than two decades old–might be a better form of society. Berg and Merriman heroically cast their lot with comrades in the Spanish Republic, but their erstwhile patrons in Moscow proved unworthy of their affection. Although Joseph Stalin's Soviet Union was the only nation to sell weapons to the Spanish Republic, it sent them junk, exacted a high toll, and–like the proverbial fair-weather friend–was never there when most needed. Moreover, his agents in Spain were often more concerned with ferreting out Trotskyites than Nationalists. Nor did they shy from using foreign volunteers as cannon fodder; Bob Merriman died on precisely such a fool's errand. In 1949, six authors wrote the epitaph of communism and called it The God that Failed; tellingly, five of them were reporters during the Spanish Civil War.

Hochschild's unique twist to the story is to devote much of his attention to the reporters who covered the war, including such luminaries as Jay Allen, Herbert Matthews, Ernest Hemingway, George Steer, George Orwell, Martha Gellhorn, Frances Davis, Virginia Cowles, and future communist apostates Louis Fischer, André Gide, and Arthur Koestler. There are juicy tidbits, such as the way Cowles and Gellhorn used prevailing sexism to their advantage, how some editors kowtowed to pressure from the Catholic Church to whitewash Franco's crimes, how a handful such as Herbert Knickerbocker became propagandists for the Nationalists, and details suggesting that Hemingway was precisely the pompous, arrogant egoists his detractors claimed. Mostly, though, Hochschild views the journalists in a positive light. If you want to get a grasp on Franco's barbarism, read Jay Allen's dispatches on the massacre of Badajoz; if you want to understand Picasso's Guernica, read George Steer's account of its destruction.

There is a lot of heroism in Hochschild's account, but also villains galore. If communism was a failed god, one wonders what that makes Pope Pius XI, who worshiped at a fascist altar. If there is a hell, Texaco chief Torkild Rieber is suffering from its fires—he provided practically free oil for Hitler's Luftwaffe, which honed its skills in Spain. Indeed, one could imagine a host of American policymakers sweltering from the glow of Rieber's flames—the isolationists and non-interventionists who placed anti-communist zealotry and/or insistence upon neutrality above world security. (Franklin Roosevelt bears some blame as well.) Moreover, as unworthy as communism proved to be, fascism was far worse. Scale is the only thing that prevents Franco from rising to the top tier of 20th century monsters. 
Hochschild is a gifted writer whose time as a writer-in-residence at the University of Massachusetts Amherst made me yearn for this book before it was anywhere near completion. His writing is refreshing because he rekindles a skill sadly lacking in a lot of historical writing: the ability to tell a good story. A tale well told informs readers far more than reams of leaden prose, arcane analyses, and esoterica. Nor does Hochschild hide behind academia's often-faux objectivity. Although he acknowledges that communism was a false god, he admits he might have embraced that faith back then. He ultimately agrees with journalist Herbert Matthews, whose reporting on Spain was urgent and openly pro-Republic partisan. Matthews (and Hochschild) viewed the Spanish Civil War as a moral test for those who reflexively dismiss questions of whether there are times in which proactive interventionism is necessary. Hochschild has written a backdoor "what if?" history. Western democracies dithered, but Hitler and Mussolini did not; they supplied Franco with pilots, soldiers, and state-of-the-art military materiel. What if, Hochschild speculates, they had been stopped in the Basque country hillsides? All counterfactual history is suspect, Hochschild's included, but one must ponder whether it's better to worship false gods or submit to real demons.--Rob Weir


Kathe Kollwitz's Moving Work on Display at Smith College

Käthe Kollwitz
Smith Museum of Art, through May 29, 2016

The Mothers 
Aristophanes’ ancient Greek comedy of Lysistrata is so often performed that you may have seen it. Its humor—drawing upon the social values of Antiquity—derives from Lysistrata’s unique strategy for ending warfare: rally women to deny sex to men until the fighting stops. German artist Käthe Kollwitz (1867-1945) tried a different tactic: shame. The Smith College Museum of Art features a selection of her paintings, drawings, lithographs, graphics, and sculptures, nearly all of which touch upon themes of social justice—poverty, class oppression, and the ravages of war, as seen through the eyes women, especially mothers.

The Peasants War
Kollwitz was born into the bourgeois comfort of a religious Prussian family, but she quickly left it behind and embraced her grandmother’s socialism. A sense of loss permeates much of her work, perhaps induced by her brother’s early death, and enhanced by marrying and having two sons while still in her twenties. Socialism certainly influenced early efforts that gained notice: her 1898 series titled The Weavers, which commemorated an 1842 Silesian strike; and her homage to the 16th century Peasants War, completed in 1908. In each case, Kollwitz was drawn to both the plight of the poor and to the deep loss felt by mothers whose young children suffered and whose older ones became combatants and casualties.

World War I deepened her anguish and left her heartbroken; her son Peter perished in the conflict. Although she was recognized as a leading voice in German art and co-founded the Women’s Art Association, the chaos and deprivations of the Weimar Republic led her deeper into the pacifist fold. If you will, they made her into an artistic Lysistrata committed to the idea that war was futile as an agent of social change and a form of male aggression that repressed women and children.

Many of Kollwitz’s works have a Pieta-like quality, with ordinary women supplanting the Madonna and offering final succor to dying husbands, sons, neighbors, and each other. The latter is not to be overlooked—log before second wave feminists spoke of communities of women, Kollwitz depicted them in mutual embraces that evoked a sense of building a mass-bodied shell against the external realm of pain. Sometimes they bear their children like offerings that will not go into the basket, as in her 1924 poster The Survivors: Fight War, not Wars; sometimes the women huddle back to back but with eyes gazing outward as in the powerful woodcut The Mothers (1923).

Of Kollwitz’s works, her woodcuts and sculptures made the most impression upon me—there is an ineffable sadness in their solidity and the somber tones of rock and black or sepia ink. The woodcuts in particular invoke the heavy outlining of Georges Rouault and the profound emotions of German expressionists such as Max Beckman, yet with a perspective that it is identifiably female. Still other evocations include Tahitian statuary and the Depression era portraits of Dorothea Lange.

The Sacrifice 
Kollwitz merged her art with her social conscious and became known as an outspoken opponent of militarism. This, of course, failed to endear her to the Nazi regime that came to power in the 1930s. Her art was removed from museum walls--though luckily not destroyed as “degenerate art”—and she was forced to resign as head of the Women’s Art Association. In a profound irony, she died on April 22, 1945, just 16 days before World War II ended. It is, though, fitting that her art lives on long whereas that failed painter, Adolph Hitler, endures only in infamy.

Of course, another distressing irony lies in the fact that somehow Kollwitz’s pieces at Smith—some of whom are now more than a hundred years old—feel so profoundly relevant for our own time of military conflict. Change a few costumes and it could be Syria. Or Afghanistan. Or Ferguson, Missouri. See this exhibit. And weep for humankind.

Rob Weir