Last weekend at the Sundance Film Festival, two Bay Area-based movies played out a fresh version of that movie classic "A Star Is Born."
Going into the famed indie festival, there was much hype about "Jobs," the first of two biopics about Steve Jobs, the enigmatic Apple visionary. Expectations for the film as an insightful look at Jobs weren't particularly high, but curiosity about how Ashton Kutcher would portray him more than compensated.
By the time the weekend was over, though, the buzz had moved to a film very few even knew was opening at Sundance. By Sunday, all the talk was about "Fruitvale," better known as "the Oscar Grant movie." It walked away with the Grand Jury and Audience Award prizes for a dramatic film. The fact that "Fruitvale" had been helmed by 26-year-old director Ryan Coogler -- who was the same age as Grant when he was shot in 2009 at an Oakland BART station -- made the story all the more compelling.
With "Jobs" scheduled for theaters in April and "Fruitvale" a likely candidate for next year's Oscar season, two important chapters of Bay Area history are headed to the big screen. And the icons whose stories they tell could not be more different.
They also point to something interesting about the state of American cinema.
In the past few months, movies have taken us inside a hostage takeover at the U.S. Embassy in Iran, behind the doors of Osama bin Laden's fortressed compound, and onto the floor of Congress amid heated debate about the 13th Amendment.
The three films telling those stories are not only Oscar contenders, but box-office hits. That's the beauty and the rub -- all three movies were so masterfully made that they dominate and define our images and ideas of history. But is this a good or bad thing? There's no simple answer, but much of the answer depends on the filmmaker and the vision of the story he or she sets out to tell. It also seems that the further away the event is in history, the harder it is to nitpick the details.
There's been little controversy about "Lincoln," a film about a president who is widely loved and respected. Moreover, the movie did more than entertain; it offered timely insights into the complicated politics of the presidency by showing the ethical dilemma Lincoln faced when the South offered him a compromise to quickly end the Civil War if he were to drop his pursuit to end slavery.
"Argo," set in the late 1970s, was more of a fun thriller, but it nonetheless is a memorable reminder of how much the public is unaware of the behind-the-scenes drama unfolding in any international crisis.
In contrast, "Zero Dark Thirty" treads heavily on topical, contentious ground. Particularly disturbing was the question it raised about the role torture played in capturing bin Laden. I hesitated to see it, because I have a hard time sitting through violence, especially reality-based violence packaged as entertainment. In the end, I did go, in part because I was curious to see what happened when those black helicopters descended on bin Laden's compound.
But is that how the assault really went down? How much of a role did torture play? As a movie that's set in the present, it has the power to shape the way we view the world, even if it's unconsciously. So, yes, the truth matters a lot.
That brings me back to "Jobs" and "Fruitvale." Yes, both movies focus on the men, but they also tell two narratives that define two very different worlds very close to home -- the upbeat story of the man who embodied Silicon Valley's entrepreneurial spirit, and the tragic tale of racial stereotyping and friction between young black men and police in Oakland. How will these stories look to those of us who live here and watched them unfold?
Only those lucky enough to attend Sundance have seen either, but here's the general consensus of the reviews and news stories so far:
Those expecting insights into accurate storytelling about early life in Silicon Valley likely will be disappointed by "Jobs," if Steve Wozniak's "What? No way!" reaction to a scene he saw on a trailer is any indication. To be fair, some speculate that he's not exactly an unbiased observer; he's a consultant to the other Jobs biopic, with the script written by Aaron Sorkin. (That film has not yet been made.)
Kutcher, whose casting alone created low expectations, did a decent job as "Jobs," critics said, generally capturing the computer genius' mannerisms, volatility and charisma, if not his essence and spark.
In contrast, as famous as his name is now, very few know anything about the man who was Grant, and that's the point of "Fruitvale." Coogler grew up in Oakland, and as he's told interviewers, "Oscar Grant could have been me." The movie focuses not on the "who's right, who's wrong" of his New Year's Eve shooting in 2009, but creates a context for us to better understand a young man who lived in a world very different from Silicon Valley.
Most viewers of historically inspired films -- whether that history is 200 years old or still in the headlines -- know that even if the filmmaker is an artist and an entertainer, creative license often is a necessary evil for the sake of good storytelling. Any movie based on a real story must be taken with a grain of salt.
When "Fruitvale," "Jobs," and, eventually, the second Jobs movie come to the Bay Area, you can be sure there will be much interest, as well as much dissecting of the details. But if the filmmakers have done their jobs and captured the essential truth, we'll come away with a greater understanding of what it's like to live here now.
Lisa Wrenn is the Features Editor for the San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times and Oakland Tribune. Follow her at Twitter.com/lwrenn.