Other than Jeff Daniels playing a bumbling but well-intentioned boss, both films are tied together by deeply rooted patriotism. Aaron Sorkin’s Steve Jobs takes an unflinching look at a true American icon while Ridley Scott’s The Martian imagines the type of American icon we could have. Steve Jobs and astronaut Mark Watney couldn’t be more different, but both of their films are making a huge mark to kick off Oscar movie season.
It’s interesting to imagine a world where David Fincher directed this film and Christian Bale starred. But it’s also counterproductive to lament that version because it would discredit the fact that Danny Boyle’s gentle directing is very, very good. Boyle mostly stands out of the way of screenwriter Aaron Sorkin and some tremendous performances, but switching up the formats is a nice touch. His uncynical approach is a nice contrast to Fincher’s borderline mean-spirited directing in The Social Network. Much has been made of the portrayal of Steve Jobs but the film’s last segment is mostly redemptive, and Boyle is happy to show an older and wiser man working hard to make up for some of his mistakes. The comparisons to Citizen Kane and The Social Network aren’t completely off-base, but those directors didn’t have nearly the amount of affection for their subjects as Boyle has for Jobs.
Sorkin’s Jobs gets compared (usually by himself) to Da Vinci, Stravinsky, and Caesar. He’s narcissistic, rude, and he spends most of the first segment being cold to his daughter. But the film also doesn’t hesitate to show his genius, either. He’s the composer, the master-planner, the guy who bullies his way out of Apple and then smarts his way back in. Sorkin doesn’t delve into the Jobs of the 2000s – iPods and iPads are only hinted at, as the story ends in 1998. That’s not an accident – omitting some of the most significant points of his life is Sorkin’s way of leaving you on a hopeful note. The Steve Jobs we knew, the one that has furnished 50% of the homes in America with at least one device, was better than the Jobs we see at the beginning of the film.
The cast is mostly phenomenal here. Michael Fassbender doesn’t just read the lines Sorkin-style (ahem, Jesse Eisenberg), he gives his character a power and a vulnerability that you believe him even when he’s at his douchiest. Much has been made of Seth Rogen as Steve Wozniak, and he’s great, but he’s relegated to fifth place here. Sorkin himself describes Jobs’ daughter Lisa as the heroine of the film, and she is the emotional center. Jobs’ attempts to connect with her are often clunky (to put it charitably) and sometimes downright cruel. Kate Winslet’s accent is a little, um, inconsistent, but she gives a fine performance as his handler and only true friend. But it’s Jeff Daniels as former Apple CEO John Sculley that gives this film a few of its best sequences. The intercut sequence about halfway through the film that deals with the firing of Steve Jobs and the subsequent fallout is the most cinematic and one of the most emotionally compelling snippets of the film. Daniels isn’t just a sympathetic character here; he’s usually right, at least when it comes to Jobs. His father/mentor relationship with Jobs is the most interesting and nuanced relationship in the film and one strange but excellent flashback in the last sequence deepens it even further.
Steve Jobs flopped when it was released to mass audiences this last weekend, and it’s not hard to see why. It’s essentially a filmed play with a not-quite-movie-star cast tarnishing a recently deceased American icon. It may not be the most factually accurate biopic in the world (Sorkin doesn’t even like to call it a biopic), but it’s a really good movie.
Meanwhile, The Martian presents us with a hypothetical not-so-distant future where we send people to Mars on the reg. We’ve always been obsessed with space and the great unknown and this movie is one big advertisement for future space voyages. But everything’s a little more compelling when you have Matt Damon, and he gets to show all his charm here as astronaut and hypothetical American icon Mark Watney.
While Steve Jobs learns to be decent, Mark Watney is already extraodinary. Watney is stranded in space with slim hopes of survival, but he stays positive and he solves problem after problem ingeniously. He is smart, funny, handsome, and doesn’t mind eating potatoes for every meal. He’s exactly what we want the American hero to be. A cynic might say that the story is a lie, but isn’t it nice to have films that inspire?
The Martian stands apart from movies like Gravity and even in some ways Interstellar due to its accessibility and sense of irony. The movie cuts to Mark, then to NASA, then to the ship Mark’s supposed to be on, and on it goes. It’s quick-paced and quick-witted and it never stops having fun. Kristen Wiig is in a pretty thankless role here, but her mere presence in the film lets you know this is supposed to be fun.
Matt Damon is one of the only people in the world that can pull off handsome everyman genius Mars colonist. This is an important movie for him – in his post-Bourne career he’s done too many far too many Monuments Men and We Bought a Zoos. Those movies seemed like good ideas at the time – good directors, solid casts – but they all fell flat. It’s been a while since he’s been a true movie star, and it’s refreshing to see him in something good again.
Awards season is here and there will plenty more prestige films to come. There will be better movies than Steve Jobs (probably) and there might just be another space-themed blockbuster that outshines The Martian. But there’s something about both of these films that has a certain cultural resonance. They show us the people we look up to, the ones we wish could look up to, and the uncomfortable gap in between.