From ‘Steve Jobs’ to ‘The Martian’: How the Movies Navigate Work-Life Balance

CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK: From ‘Steve Jobs’ to ‘The Martian’ and ‘Spotlight,’ Hollywood's prestige titles put our professional and personal lives in perspective.

“Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work.”

These words, once spoken by Steve Jobs, are nowhere to be found in Steve Jobs,” probably because they would have been entirely redundant. From first frame to last, Danny Boyle’s movie is all business, all the time — a hyper-caffeinated Silicon Valley farce whose very structure mocks any sane notion of work-life balance. For two hours we watch as the iconic Apple entrepreneur (played with monomaniacal intensity by Michael Fassbender) prepares for three potentially game-changing product launches, attending to his messy personal affairs in the spare moments he doesn’t have. Around and around he goes, barking orders, accelerating deadlines, making last-minute adjustments and bickering, bickering, bickering with his other colleagues, as though determined to elevate their blood pressure to a level on par with his own.

Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay, with its rigorous three-act structure, does grant us some occasional breathing room — a glimpse of the garage where Jobs and Steve Wozniak built their first computer, a scene in Jobs’ sparsely furnished Woodside home. But domestic matters, even when shunted aside, have a natural way of intruding — or perhaps an unnatural way, depending on your view of the sudden appearances of Jobs’ ex-lover, Chrisann Brennan, and their daughter, Lisa. Tossing aside any pretensions to realism, let alone accuracy, Sorkin and Boyle treat Lisa as the most inconvenient figure in Jobs’ life, and the one who ultimately reveals the best side of him. She is both a precocious voice of reason and a continual reminder that there really is more to life than work, even great work.

So perhaps “Steve Jobs,” as much as it may burnish its subject’s already monumental ego, has a richer, more complicated understanding of What Really Matters than it has been given credit for. (Something similar, by several accounts, could be said of the real Steve Jobs himself.) It also happens to be one of many movies this season that speak to the difficulty of drawing a line between work and family, a concern that has been experiencing more than its usual degree of real-world sociopolitical currency. The need for work-life balance found an unexpected advocate last week in the form of Rep. Paul Ryan, who prefaced his bid for the position of U.S. House Speaker by announcing, “I cannot and will not give up my family time.”

Inarguable as Ryan’s sentiments were, many were understandably quick to denounce the hypocrisy of a man whose own policies toward the working class have been more in line with those of presidential hopeful and fellow Republican Jeb Bush, who recently remarked that Americans “need to work longer hours and through their productivity gain more income for their families.” The sense that the vast majority of Americans don’t already work hard enough is one with dire ramifications for the world of commerce and, more importantly, the men and women who toil within it — from the offices of Amazon, whose competitive working environment was the subject of a lengthy and controversial New York Times expose, to the executive suites of Wall Street, which have seen a troubling recent spike in suicide rates among overworked investment bankers.

For all their promise of carefree escapism, Hollywood movies have long held up a rueful and sympathetic mirror to this ever-present condition — perhaps going at least as far back as “Modern Times” (1936), with its indelible image of Charlie Chaplin becoming one with the cogs in his machine. The movies of 2015 may not have supplied a metaphor of comparable resonance, but a number of them have called important, sometimes inadvertent attention to our present-day culture of workaholism — none more directly or raucously than Michael Moore’s “Where to Invade Next,” a globe-trotting valentine to France, Italy, Spain and other countries that appreciate the necessity of an eight-week vacation or a homework-free public education.

Other films this year have pointedly depicted work as an all-consuming, even totalizing force in American society, and the fact that several of them (including “Steve Jobs”) are period pieces does little to extinguish their sense of urgency. It’s not just that the characters work hard in these movies, it’s that we rarely see them doing anything else; work is their very raison d’etre, and our primary reason for spending time with them in the first place. There are few more extreme examples of this than The Martian,” which divides its time between NASA headquarters and the distant intragalactic workstations where astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) and his crew find themselves. Projects routinely last months or even years, and Ridley Scott’s survival drama can be viewed, on one level, as a catalogue of occupational hazards: injury, abandonment, tedium, isolation, and of course death by thirst, starvation and self-immolation.

What’s remarkable about Scott’s film is the degree to which it short-circuits the existential despair and captures the essentially optimistic, downright cheery ethos of American enterprise. “The Martian” is a tribute to ingenuity and can-do spirit, where triumph is achieved through a canny combination of individual brilliance, loyal teamwork and some outside help from the Chinese — and also, in a pinch, some well-timed insubordination. (Interestingly, both “The Martian” and “Steve Jobs” feature Jeff Daniels as a supremely prickly boss who finds himself caught between his personal agenda and the tides of public/shareholder opinion.)

Unlike last year’s messier, more emotionally charged space-travel spectacular, “Interstellar,” “The Martian” does not weigh the personal costs of its characters’ sacrifice. Watney may be the world’s farthest-flung telecommuter, but he remains sardonic and unruffled to the end. We never learn if he has loved ones waiting for him back on terra firma, or if he would care in any event. Nor are his fellow astronauts particularly well individuated; it develops that the crew leader played by Jessica Chastain has lousy taste in music, but that’s about it. Character reveals itself through action and initiative, not through personal disclosure. For better or worse, “The Martian” treats emotions as problems to be solved (or never raised in the first place), and scrubs away human concerns as neatly as the digitally removed blemishes on the red planet’s surface. Scott’s movie is a clean-burning engine and a hell of a smooth ride — a paean to productivity that struggles, at times, to feel like much more than superior product.

If “The Martian” zips us into a not-so-distant future, two other films this season offer nostalgia-tinted excursions into the more recent past — specifically, a time when America’s venerable news outlets could afford to devote more time and resources to the hard work of investigative reporting. One of the most quietly inspiring aspects of Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight is how thoroughly it reveals journalism to be a collaborative endeavor, in which several dedicated Boston Globe editors and reporters (played by Michael Keaton, Liev Schreiber, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams and Brian D’Arcy James) have an equal share in bringing the abuses of the Catholic Church to national attention.

There is scarcely a minute in “Spotlight” when these characters are not on the case; indeed, the only moments that feel forced or extraneous are those that attempt to illuminate the impact of the case on their personal lives, as when D’Arcy James realizes that a pedophile priest lives in his neighborhood. In all other respects, McCarthy’s film is a consummate process movie, and as such it owes an obvious debt to “All the President’s Men” (1976), which similarly refused to hasten the long, sometimes tedious task of tracking down sources and chasing paper trails. It also feels of a piece with “Zodiac” (2007), one of the greatest movies ever made about how work can become a futile, all-consuming, marriage-wrecking obsession.

The shadow of “Zodiac” lingers over the year’s other blow-by-blow newsroom procedural, “Truth,” not least because both films were scripted by James Vanderbilt. Yet while it demonstrates a comparably rigorous, methodical attention to detail as it untangles the CBS News reporting scandal of 2004, “Truth” is not just an ensemble piece but also a character study — and one that, despite the implied objectivity of its title, ultimately mounts a spirited defense of the former “60 Minutes” producer Mary Mapes. In Cate Blanchett’s performance, Mapes is shown to be fearless, dogged, scrupulous and, whatever her lapses in judgment during this particular case, damned good at her job.

Which isn’t enough, of course. Vanderbilt is particularly sympathetic to the fact that as elusive as work-life balance can be for men, it’s invariably a trickier thing to calibrate for women. And like many powerful and respected women in positions of authority, the Mapes we see on screen finds herself on the receiving end of condescension and sexism — albeit from a panel of hostile lawyers, rather than her mostly supportive, mostly male colleagues. She’s also guiltily aware that she doesn’t spend enough time with her husband and their young son, who seem to have carved out a small niche for themselves amid the nonstop craziness of Mom’s career.

Can a woman ever have it all? You might as well ask Hildy Johnson in “His Girl Friday” — or perhaps Jules Ostin, the wife, mother and successful e-tailer played by Anne Hathaway in Nancy Meyers’ unexpectedly resonant corporate fable, The Intern.” A leader for the era of digital, do-it-yourself multitasking, Jules looks to her septuagenarian intern, Ben (Robert De Niro), to decide whether she should give up control of her own company in order to save her marriage — the sort of dilemma that, one suspects, wouldn’t weigh quite so heavily on a man in the same situation. Meyers’ film has generated plenty of food for thought: Is it an up-to-the-minute celebration of female breadwinners, or a hopelessly retrograde daddy-daughter fantasy? Perhaps it’s best to think of it as a spiritual sequel to “The Devil Wears Prada,” in which Hathaway played another woman navigating the fashion industry while trying to keep her professional dedication and personal integrity intact.

Jules Ostin and Mary Mapes aren’t the only characters this year with something to teach us about the challenges of approaching one’s metier with a healthy sense of emotional balance, by which I do not mean James Bond. I’m talking, of course, about Joy, the spritely and ebullient life force at the center of Inside Out.” Bear with me for a moment: I’m aware that Joy, like her compadres Fear, Anger, Disgust and Sadness, is an abstract emotional representation rather than an actual human character. And yet Disney/Pixar’s latest animated extravaganza is nonetheless one of the great workplace comedies of recent vintage, and not just because its female leads are voiced by two actresses, Amy Poehler (“Parks and Recreation”) and Phyllis Smith (“The Office”), who are particularly well suited to that terrain.

Inside Out” imagines the adolescent psyche as nothing less than a bustling, rapidly expanding corporate empire — complete with memory-clearing janitors, an interdepartmental railway system, and even a graveyard shift. As the project manager in charge of this essential operation, Joy, a Type A workaholic if ever there was one, must absorb key lessons of effective and responsible leadership — like, it’s OK to delegate. Honest communication, not false cheer, will keep you and your team functional. Your least likable co-worker might turn out to be your MVP. And yes, you can take a vacation once in a while. The world will go on.

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