The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs (TATESJ) has aggravate a rare genetic condition Jason Compton suffers from: that of Michael Keaton Overdrive.
It took over twenty years, but working on The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs means that I’ve finally caught up with my brother, Keith. Not necessarily as an actor, mind you, but as a compulsive Michael Keaton viewer.
I will explain.
For a span of several months in the early 1990s, between about 3:20-3:50 PM on weekdays, I can tell you exactly what was on the living room TV in our ancestral home. It was Batman Returns. It was my brother’s after-school ritual to watch the first half hour of that movie, give or take.
It’s taken a very long time, but I think I finally get it. Because for the past couple of weeks, I have been compulsively watching Michael Keaton in The Founder. Netflix suggested it to me after I finished something-or-other, and although I don’t necessarily gravitate to biopics, the combination of “the origin story of McDonald’s” and “Michael Keaton” intrigued me. And I stayed up very late that night to finish watching it.
Then a few days later I realized I wanted to watch it again.
Now I’ve capitulated and I’m basically watching it on a continuous, rolling basis. Technology has advanced a bit since 1993, so instead of having to rewind a VHS tape, Netflix lets me pick up where I left off from any room in the house. I believe I’ve logged six full playthroughs of it by now. (Netflix, I’m sure, can tell you exactly how much of it I’ve watched, and exactly what it says about me, demographically, that I have done so.)
It didn’t even hit me until after the third time through why my brain is so wired to this message right now. It’s a story about a market-defining innovator, who pairs up with a brilliant but narrowly-focused inventor, and very quickly turns that invention into a mass-marketable development that changes the world forever.
That’s the story of Ray Kroc and the McDonald brothers… and it also happens to be the story of Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak.
And that’s not a coincidence, for a number of reasons. From a pragmatic standpoint, The Founder is a recent screenplay, and I’d be absolutely shocked if the outsized visibility of Jobs’ personal story wasn’t on the screenwriter’s mind.
But it’s also simply how these things work. Great inventors are very often not great at business. The origins of the modern computer business are riddled with geniuses toiling away in low-level jobs at huge companies like HP and IBM until the showmen, the pitchmasters, the charismatic leaders spot them and lure them away and turn their inventions into actual products.
And, of course, these showmen don’t succeed unless they have something of real value to offer—as everyone from Kroc’s bankers to his frenemies to his wife keep reminding us in the film. Kroc was just a guy with a lot of gumption and stick-to-it-ness while selling stupid junk. But when he had the combination of a successful fast-food system, and the drive to turn it into a global business, he became an outsized success.
And Keaton and the film do a lot to make Kroc compelling even as they highlight his unattractive qualities. (I read that the role was originally offered to Tom Hanks. Dodged a bullet there.) And that, too, is a parallel. One of the first things I noticed about TATESJ was the very different way Mike treats Jobs and Wozniak.
For Wozniak, he has nothing but simple, pure-hearted admiration. Because in his view, Wozniak is a simple, pure-hearted figure. He’s easy to cheer for, easy to identify with, easy to admire. And that’s how the film depicts the McDonald brothers. Cheerful, optimistic Mac is everybody’s ideal uncle. Even the dry, acerbic Dick is clearly a very good-as-in-alignment person.
Kroc, on the other hand, whines and scrapes and cajoles and end-runs the brothers and his own franchisees at every opportunity. But he’s right about the power of the McDonald’s concept to transform the way people travel and eat and work. It’s easy to disdain it now—hell, I have no particular affinity for McDonald’s myself—but I assure you, your fast-casual fusion fave would not be possible today if it wasn’t for Kroc and his fast-food colleagues radically innovating their way through most of the 20th century.
And as we watch the film, we know, by the end, that Kroc is going to screw the brothers. And he does. Not just because we know who Ray Kroc was and we don’t know who they were. It’s because guys like Kroc, and Jobs, will do that on the way to a (much) bigger end goal.
It makes them a lot harder to have a simple set of feelings about. And Mike really struggles to articulate his true feelings about Jobs, until the very end… and even then, he still must acknowledge that Jobs was a “genius of design and form.”
I’m going to be thinking about this one for a long, long time after we close Saturday night. Hopefully I can watch a few other things in the Netflix queue, though.
The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, produced by Left of Left Center and directed by Jake Penner, opens August 31 at the Bartell Theatre.