Movies: Steve Jobs and Trumbo

So we watched these as a double-header the other night, and that was possibly a mistake. Both are biopics, but they don't mesh well together, and I think Trumbo suffered by comparison because we watched Steve Jobs first.

I haven't read the Isaacson biography, although I'd like to. The film, however, is very condensed and concise. It begins with the 1984 launch of the Lisa and weaves Jobs' professional ambitions with his personal tangents—namely his denial of Lisa as his daughter and his insistence that the computer was not named for her. The whole movie bounces this way in that it harnesses various major product launches to his relationship with Lisa and her mother. It's actually done very well and would make a good stage play. As someone with only a passing sense of the history of Apple, I found it educational. The film ends with the reveal of the iMac in 1998 while Jobs simultaneously brings Lisa back into his life. This means we don't get Pixar or any of the rest of Jobs' life or work history, but it's a satisfying enough chunk for entertainment purposes.

So after watching that, to turn to something as sprawling as Trumbo . . . Made Trumbo feel long and dull by comparison.

Though Steve Jobs doesn't have a lot of action, the film feels dynamic. In Trumbo, meanwhile, a lot is going on, yet it feels as if nothing is happening at all.

Dalton Trumbo was a screenwriter and an admitted Communist at a time when being a Communist was borderline criminal. The House Un-American Activities Commission was investigating Hollywood in the belief that Communist influences were using the industry to distribute propaganda. The result was a bunch of hearings in which some industry people named names and others, like Trumbo, refused to answer questions at all. He was held in contempt and served time then returned to screenwriting but, because he could not get work under his own name, he began writing under myriad pseudonyms.

On paper it sounds like a good movie. Maybe. But in truth there isn't much meat to it. Trumbo's perseverance . . . His steadfast character . . . Because he never wavers, he's not all that interesting to watch. Instead we're served a history lesson, a kind of: Here's a thing that happened. And we all nod and say, "Yeah, that happened. It shouldn't have. Um . . ." While Trumbo's résumé is impressive (Roman Holiday, Spartacus, The Brave One among others), and his punking the system is also kind of cool, none of it makes for particularly compelling viewing.

The real winner here may be actor Michael Stuhlbarg who appears in both Steve Jobs and Trumbo and is one of the best things about each. In Steve Jobs he plays Andy Hertzfeld, hapless underling, and in Trumbo he is Edward G. Robinson. When we saw him in Trumbo, I said, "That's the guy from Steve Jobs!" No one believed me so I looked it up on IMDb to prove myself. (I pride myself on being good with faces.) I thought he did solid work on both counts.

In short, I enjoyed Steve Jobs but didn't like Trumbo as much as I would have hoped, especially after it was recommended to me by so many. I can only conjecture I may have liked Trumbo better if I hadn't watched it right after Steve Jobs. I'll never know for sure. 'Tis the hazard of a double feature.

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