In Rob Reiner’s A Few Good Men (1992), one of the most enthralling court room scenes in cinema history is followed by one of the cheesiest. After a blistering monologue expounding notions of power, responsibility and things “you don’t talk about at parties” Col. Nathan Jessup (Jack Nicholson) is lured into a confession by wily hotshot prosecutor Lt. Daniel Kaffee (Tom Cruise).
Their Sorkin-scribed cross-examination is famous because it’s great, a five word line — “you can’t handle the truth” — burnt into the popular lexicon. After it, whining like a punished school boy, one of the two accused soldiers flaps around, livid about being found guilty.
Prompted by a sudden change in heart, the other tells him, with a sorrowful look in his eyes, that they got their just desserts. “We were supposed to fight for people who couldn’t fight for themselves,” he says. “We were supposed to fight for Willy.” Violin strings soar. Tom Cruise, to the tune of a thousand audience groans, responds: “You don’t need to wear a patch on your arm to have honour.”
The strings reach a crescendo, we cut to a long shot of Cruise standing in an empty courtroom and “The End” appears on screen in a font very much like Times New Roman. Somewhere, every time it is played, a fairy inhales a whiff of that noxious cheese and dies. Given A Few Good Men’s massive box office intake and long life on ancillary platforms, conservative estimates suggest over a billion Tinkerbells have been sent to the hereafter. You could call this a crowd-pleasing Hollywood ending. You could also call it genocide.
The “fight for Willy” sequence is a good example of the fickle nature of dramatic feature film storytelling, in the sense one moment is enough to derail the integrity of an entire picture and swing its emphasis from sentiment to sentimentality. Once that bridge has been crossed and audience goodwill has been squandered, it is virtually impossible to get it back.
Those moments are strewn throughout director Joshua Michael Stern’s dunderheaded Steve Jobs biopic, Jobs. It is a far less accomplished film and the audience are given far fewer moments of reprieve. Ashton Kutcher was an unlikely choice to play Apple’s late tsar, though not, as it turns out, a particularly bad one.
There is something in the way he holds himself, something in the way the That 70’s Show alumni calculates (and overreaches) his emotional projections that suggests a better script and actor-oriented direction could have shaped his performance into something more restrained and memorable. The 2004 chaos theory inspired thriller The Butterfly Effect (2004) proved Kutcher’s presence isn’t an anathema to a serious, dramatically explorative film.
But the 35-year-old actor’s impersonation of Jobs’ gait – a kind of slow, close to the ground stoop, how I imagine a dodo or some other dumb extinct animal once walked – borders on an SNL sketch; the poor bastard looks like he just checked out of a spinal injuries clinic or took acting advice from Quasimodo. When Jobs erupts (“everything is a pressing issue,” he hollers at a bewildered employee who is quickly shown the door) the representation may be true enough of the late CEO’s attitudes to hiring and firing staff, but it feels like confected outrage.
Early scenes in which a shoeless Jobs walks/stoops/strolls/struts around campus then drops acid to the tune of middle of the road pop songs is a bizarre psychotropic experience, because it feels so normal. This cool cat doesn’t listen to Jefferson Airplane or Pink Floyd and is more likely to gaze lovingly at the sun then ask for a portable radio to be hurled in the bathtub when White Rabbit peaks. Jobs buddies up with dorky whiz Steve Wozniak (Josh Gad) who has the know-how to construct such gasp-inducing inventions as a keyboard but lacks the charisma to sell the sizzle.
Wozniak and Jobs gather a posse, build the world’s first home computer and the rest is not so much history as a dairy-infused re-enactment of it, from the protagonist’s falling out with his friends and his falling out with Apple’s board to his eventual reappointment as CEO. A scene in which a freshly sacked Jobs returns to the garage where it all began and sobs like a schoolgirl is one of several with the gall to ask us to care; to flick a switch from “what an arsehole” to “poor guy” when much of the movie is comprised of reasons why we shouldn’t.
The essential difference between a psychopath and a sociopath is a psychopath doesn’t comprehend discrepancies between right and wrong and a sociopath does, but doesn’t care. Building an understanding of that into the construction of a complicated character along the lines of a figure like Steve Jobs is one of the reasons Jesse Eisenberg’s portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network (2010) was so effective, and one of reasons director David Fincher never had to ask audiences to cheat their moral compass on the grounds of dramatic expediency. The paradoxical need to be loved and hated was even hinted at in the film’s poster tagline: “You don’t get to 500 million friends without making a few enemies.”
A vintage “we were supposed to fight for Willy” moment arrives near the end of Jobs. Steve is back in the game, hungry for inspiration and in a computer lab talking to a doe eyed go-getter. The upstart says to him: “There are still those of us who believe in what Apple stood for. What YOU stood for…that’s what keeps us here. That we might do it once more.”
Thanks old sport, and, yep, we’re all done, move along, nothing to see, plane to catch, taxi to hail, car to drive, brick wall to run into, whatever. Asking an actor to actually say hackneyed turns of phrase such as “that we might do it once more” anywhere outside Middle Earth is like playing Russian roulette with your movie, a way to make everything fall to pieces in an instant. It’s not an isolated moment: the final scene in this idiotic biopic is an inspirational speech laid over a flashback montage consisting of key dramatic moments, just in case you missed them.
Jobs’ Australian theatrical release date: August 29, 2013.