The Rocket & JobsSeptember 7, 2013
Laos has the unenviable distinction of being the most bombed country in the world. During the ‘Secret War’ waged by the United States and its allies, between 1964-73, Laos endured 580,000 bombing missions which dropped two million tons of ordnance – the equivalent of a planeload of bombs every eight minutes for a period of nine years. From 270 million cluster bombs, up to one third failed to explode. These leftovers have led to the deaths of 20,000 civilians since the end of the Vietnam war. Nowadays the Americans donate $3 million a year to help to clean up a mess that cost $17 million per day to make.
With such a legacy, Laotians have every reason to be angry, but instead have embraced forgiveness. Maybe it’s due to Buddhist stoicism, but the people of Laos are renowned for being cheerful and friendly.
Although the economy is largely based on subsistence farming, with an infrastructure so primitive there is not even a railway, Laos is on the move. With increasing tourism and foreign investment, the country is feeling a new optimism.
There is no such thing as a Lao film industry but the foundations have been laid by Australian director, Kim Mordaunt, who along with partner and producer, Sylvia Wilczynski, has made two important movies in Laos. The first, Bomb Harvest (2007), was a documentary about the national blight of unexploded ordnance. Mordaunt’s new film, The Rocket, is a remarkable first feature that has won a swag of awards in Berlin, New York and Australia.
Not the least remarkable aspect of The Rocket is the fact that all the dialogue is in Lao, a language the director doesn’t speak. The Laotian cast is largely untrained but thoroughly convincing, especially the child actors – Loungnam Kaosainam as Kia, and Sitthiphon Disamoe, as the lead character, Ahlo. At the Tribecca Film Festival, Disamoe, a former street kid, won the award for best actor.
The Rocket is a coming-of-age tale that manages to avoid the worst pitfalls of the genre. It’s impossible to eliminate sentimentality in such a film, but it is never allowed to become cloying. Many reviewers, reaching reflexively for the first available cliché, will describe The Rocket as “heart-warming”, but it doesn’t deserve this ghastly epithet. A great movie doesn’t warm one’s heart, like too much rich food; it engages and stimulates the imagination.
The story begins with Ahlo’s birth in a remote village. To the horror of his grandmother (Bunsri Yindi), who acts as midwife, he is the first of twins, the other being stillborn. There is a local superstition that twins are bad luck and the first born must be killed. Ahlo’s mother Mali (Alice Keohavong) ensures the boy’s survival, but he will carry this stigma throughout his childhood.
The family’s luck is so bad it is easy to believe they are jinxed. The single biggest catastrophe arrives when they are told their village is to be flooded to make way for a new dam, built with Australian money and know-how. The powerless villagers are herded into trucks and delivered to a half-built settlement that consists of nothing but concrete shells. The only option is to live in makeshift tents until the new housing is ready.
Ahlo makes friends with a little orphan girl, Kia, and her eccentric uncle (Thep Phongham), who is known as Purple, thanks to the suit he wears constantly in emulation of his hero, James Brown. Kia and Purple are outcasts, and Ahlo’s mischief soon ensures a similar fate for his own family. Along with Kia and Purple they escape the settlement in a cart full of bombs, but struggle to find a new home. For Ahlo the only salvation would be to win the annual contest for the best homemade rocket at a regional festival. As well as a cash prize, and the chance of being accepted into the community, there is the added incentive of proving to everyone that he does not bring bad luck.
It’s not hard to predict the ending, but the story is so well told it remains dramatically satisfying. There are scenes that stay lodged in one’s mind, including the ride in the bomb cart; and a swim in the new dam, where Ahlo is confronted with the stony face of a drowned Buddha. In his efforts to build a rocket he chips away at an unexploded bomb, coming perilously close to disaster.
Despite the long sequence of tragic misfortunes that befall Ahlo’s family, The Rocket is an up-tempo film with a sense of humour. It also manages a non-dogmatic exploration of all the big humanitarian issues, from unexploded bombs to the wanton destruction of traditional lifestyles. The film is dominated by the ten-year-old Disamoe who is irresistable in the lead role. His interaction with Kaosainam is as fascinating as any male-female pairing you will see this year.
One assumes that the resourcefulness of these children is meant to reflect the same qualities in Laos itself, as it is drawn inexorably into the global economy. It’s not just a study of one small boy pushing towards adulthood, it’s the story of an entire country rising from the ruins.
If The Rocket takes a wellworn genre and finds a way of investing it with new energy, Joshua Michael Stern’s bio-pic of Apple founder, Steve Jobs, is a painfully clumsy examination of that Hollywood staple, “the flawed genius”. The all-time classic is Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941), but it is almost embarrassing to mention such a film in this context. Most of these films have tag lines such as: “He held the world in his hands, but lost the woman he loved!” This is not the case with Jobs, which is a relentlessly masculine film in which Steve’s mother, wife and girlfriends make only fleeting appearances. For the rest of the time it’s all boys and business.
With Steve Jobs only recently deceased there are plenty of his former colleagues who have been quick to point out the inaccuracies in this movie. Steve Wozniak, for one, must have been surprised to find a scene in which he goes into Jobs’s office in the dead of night to make a heartfelt speech about why he’s leaving the company. In reality Wozniak didn’t think his departure was important enough to bother telling Jobs, who ony learnt about it from the newspapers.
Such fabrications are minor sins. The biggest problem with Jobs is that it is so schematic the story reads like a PowerPoint presentation. At no stage are we allowed to feel the slightest affinity with the lead character. The movie skips Jobs’s childhood and any insights into his personality this may have provided. It begins with him wandering barefoot around a campus where he has just dropped out but still attends lectures informally. He has casual affairs, sixties-fashion, drops acid and runs off to India with an equally hirsute buddy.
Back from the hippy trail Jobs instantly metamorphoses into a ruthless, self-obsessed capitalist. He never grows any more sympathetic as the film proceeds, with sequences intended to show Jobs’s human frailties being notably unconvincing. In one scene he sacks his girlfriend with the same explosive anger that he sacks employees who question his judgement. Her offence was to tell him she was pregnant, but Jobs denies paternity and all responsibility.
The details of the tech guru’s career are well known, and recounted in a best-selling biography by Walter Isaacson. The film shows his early breakthroughs, made from a garage at his parents’ place. It dwells on his vital collaboration with Steve Wozniak, (played as the archetypal computer nerd by Josh Gad), whom many believe to be the unsung hero of the Apple story. There is a rather fractured account of his battle with the board which led to his sacking in 1985. Finally Jobs makes a triumphant return, taking Apple to a position in 2012 where it was declared the most valuable company of all time.
Such success is worshipped in the United States, and there are now endless studies of Jobs’s methods, particularly in light of the less-than-dazzling performance of his successors. The movie steers an indecisive course between Jobs the visionary businessman, and Jobs the harsh, uptight human being. Some will interpret the moral of the story as “It’s alright to be a psycho if you get results.”
Ashton Kutcher makes a good fist of impersonating Jobs, even copying his distinctive, slightly hunched walk. However, it’s difficult to put in a great performance with a lame script cobbled together from quotations, backed up by the most heavy-handed score this side of a television soap opera. When Steve is saying something profound or savouring a victory, the music swells in celebration. When he meets with a setback the strings weep plaintively.
It may seem a tall order to turn the high tech sector into a Hollywood epic, but Aaron Sorkin and David Fincher have shown in The Social Network (2010), that it can be done. Sorkin is writing his own bio-pic of Steve Jobs which will hit the screens next year, with Wozniak signed up as a consultant. This may be one of the reasons why the Stern version has all the signs of being put together in haste. The producers seem to have learned an important lesson up from the computer business, although not from Steve Jobs: if you are making an inferior product it’s imperative to be first into the shops.
The Rocket, Australia, rated M, 96 mins
Jobs, USA, rated M, 128 mins
Published by the Australian Financial Review, September 7, 2013