In their approaches to history, Joshua Michael Stern's Jobs and Lee Daniels' The Butler could hardly be less similar. The former is an example of Victorian-style great-man biography, updated for the iThings era. The latter observes monumental events, mostly involving the civil rights movement, from an Everyman's perspective.
Yet the two movies have much in common. Neither seriously exerts itself to examine psychology or illustrate character. Nor does either offer significant challenges to conventional wisdom. Instead, they proceed as historical pageants, re-creating rather than reinterpreting the events they depict.
Although some of Steve Jobs' former associates have already complained about Stern's biopic, the movie generally conforms to the known facts of the Apple co-founder's career. The filmmakers even shot in Jobs' childhood home, whose garage became one of the world's most celebrated.
In fact this merely serviceable film tells the story in such detail that it doesn't have room for Jobs' late-career triumphs. Save for a prologue set in 2001, the movie follows its flawed hero only from 1976, when he's a Reed College dropout who still hangs around the campus, to 1996, when he returns to a foundering Apple after an 11-year exile.
Along the way, Jobs alienates most of the people who helped him, notably Steve Wozniak (a fine Josh Gad), who did a lot more than his ambitious buddy to develop the Apples I and II. He also clashes with original financial backer Mike Markkula (Dermot Mulroney) and the man he himself recruited to save Apple in the 1980s, John Scully (Matthew Modine).
Jobs' failings — his arrogance, his greed, his initial refusal to acknowledge paternity of his oldest child — are well-documented. So the principal point of controversy involved here is not Jobs himself, but Ashton Kutcher, who plays him. The actor's approach is to ape Jobs' speech and movements, which he does quite well. Whether mimicry qualifies as characterization is a question for Jobs' viewers to answer for themselves.
It will also prove a perplexity, and on a larger scale, for anyone who sees The Butler, which is packed with stunt casting and distracting performances. Jane Fonda plays Nancy Reagan; a weirdly long-haired John Cusack does a Richard Nixon impression. The mood-breaking incongruities begin as soon as the 8-year-old Cecil Gaines watches his father shot dead in a Georgia cotton field: The boy is rescued by an elderly Southern belle played by no less venerable a figure than Vanessa Redgrave. Also onboard, and surprisingly believable, is Oprah Winfrey as the older Gaines' wife
Based on a Washington Post story about a longtime White House butler, Lee Daniels' movie has been extensively fictionalized. The real-life equivalent of Cecil Gaines is Eugene Allen, who grew up in Virginia, not Georgia. He served eight presidents and their families and was apparently beloved of many of them. (He did not, as The Butler would have it, raise a son who provided facile dramatic counterpoint by joining the Black Panthers.)
The movie is a two-hour tonal skirmish between the big stuff Gaines (Forest Whitaker) observes at work and the small stuff that happens at home. The latter feels reasonably authentic, with the likes of Terrence Howard, Cuba Gooding Jr. and David Oyelowo, as well as Winfrey, playing the discreet butler's boisterous friends, relatives and neighbors.
This side of the story would have worked better, though, if the filmmakers had paid attention to D.C. details. The occasional exteriors, shot in Louisiana, are laughable, and Gaines assures President Eisenhower (Robin Williams) in 1957 that his sons attend an "all-colored school" — even though Washington's public schools integrated in 1954.
Many of the White House scenes are jarringly motley, as Whitaker maintains Gaines' dignity against a series of performances that range from bland (James Marsden's JFK) to cartoonish (Liev Schreiber's LBJ). It comes as a relief when Daniels reduces Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford to TV clips — though that strategy makes the film even more of a stylistic jumble.
The Butler is carried forward by the sweep of history, though, and Jobs will benefit from Apple fans' devotion to the company's products. If these movies elicit cheers, or even draw Oscar nominations, the tributes will have been to the subjects more than to the treatments. These sagas are just too good to spoil — which doesn't mean they didn't deserve better.