Reviewer: Philip Price
Director: Danny Boyle
Stars: Jeff Daniels, Kate Winslet, Katherine Waterston, Makenzie Moss, Michael Fassbender, Michael Stuhlbarg, Perla Haney-Jardine, Ripley Sobo, Sarah Snook, Seth Rogen
Released: November 13th, 2015
I know what you’re thinking, “Hasn’t there already been a movie about Steve Jobs?” and yes, there has, but nothing about this new film is comparable to the one starring Ashton Kutcher from 2013. Like the man himself, everything about this new Steve Jobs film is innovative in the way that it creates a product consumers will no doubt find engaging as well as hopefully being something most will feel the need to seek out the same way they feel the need to own an iPhone. Coming from an all-star roster of creative minds and performers Steve Jobs is an electric two hours in the theater that possesses an energy unlike anything I’ve seen in recent memory. There is so much going on in every scene, so many other things beyond the expected exceptional dialogue from writer Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing, The Social Network). It’s clear this is a Sorkin script simply from the way people speak in perfect thoughts that are conveyed with precise wording, but more is the direction that Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours) takes by highlighting this dialogue with a trained eye on the influencing factors that surround his actors and the words they’re speaking to paint a fully-realized picture. While it is certainly necessary to have some pre-existing knowledge of Jobs and his reputation, this film is able to convey the major portions of what crafted the arc of this man’s life in such an unconventional way that even if the film doesn’t give you all you want in regards to story it will undoubtedly make you want to rush home and read more about the man and the myth that is Steve Jobs. One could criticize the film for not filling in these gaps or for feeling like an incomplete work by virtue of sticking to it’s unique structure, but for me this only propelled the energy forward while keeping the intrigue at top notch. Beyond the craft of the writer, director and their respectful teams that put this work together it is the stellar cast that allow us to buy into these captivating monologue’s. As Jobs, Michael Fassbender (X-Men: First Class, Prometheus) doesn’t look much like the former Apple CEO, but he carries this film in every moment with a vicious performance that will no doubt keep him at the forefront of everyone’s minds as we head into awards season.
Staged in a very strict three act structure we are taken backstage at the launch of three individual products that were pioneered by Jobs if not actually created by him. We begin in 1984 with the launch of the first Macintosh computer before moving four years down the road to after Jobs was fired from Apple by then CEO John Sculley (Jeff Daniels) and his board. Jobs was setting up shop with his NEXT brand at this point with bigger plans on the horizon. Finally, there is a ten year jump to 1998 where Jobs had since been reinstated as the CEO of Apple and was getting set to launch the computer that would bring the company back from the brink of extinction with the iMac. Within each of these sequences Jobs is inundated with guests and personal issues that are seeking some kind of clarity or closure. It is in staying so true to it’s structure where Steve Jobs will draw most of it’s complaints. Naturally, a large portion of the conversations we see here likely took place at another location or at a different time, but it is all what is relative to Jobs at the presented stage in his life that matters. Obviously, the same four people weren’t waiting backstage at every product reveal to hash out their issues and if you can understand that and it apply it to what Sorkin is attempting to do your viewing experience will be all the better for it. Do I wish he would have varied up the guests a little bit? Not made Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg) a necessary conversation for each? Sure, there are a million Apple employees Jobs likely pissed off-give us a few variations, but I understand Sorkin’s need to keep the arc intact by delivering a broad picture of a complex man through his most intimate of conversations. In between each sequence we are brought up to speed by a flurry of news reports, making the structure not feel as flawless as it maybe should. Still, Steve Jobs is an accomplishment in so many more ways than it isn’t that these few shortcomings and complaints hardly render in your mind once you leave the theater. Instead, you’re left awestruck by the sheer ease with which this dauntingly complicated man’s life has just been explained to you.
That is what Sorkin is essentially doing with Steve Jobs after all: he’s digging into the psychology of what made this man who was, on one hand, a tyrannical leader that alienated employees and made them miserable a global phenomenon and the face of the most beloved tech company on the planet to others. Jobs death elicited reactions akin to those of Princess Diana’s passing. So, how can a person be both gifted and decent at the same time? This is the main idea the film seeks to explore and Sorkin gives us a warts and all biography of the man who, more than anything else, knew how to market himself as much as his products. Jobs was a walking contradiction. Jobs always felt a sense of rejection given he was put up for adoption as a baby with his sense of being exceptional only coming from the fact his adoptive parents told him they “chose” him. One might think this would lead to Jobs being especially passionate about his own children and yet he publicly denied his oldest child, Lisa (played by Makenzie Moss, Ripley Sobo and Perla Haney-Jardine at the three different stages of the film), essentially calling her mother, Chrisann Brennan (Inherent Vice‘s Katherine Waterston), a whore in TIME magazine. Sorkin used Walter Isaacson’s authorized biography as his source material and though I haven’t read the book it is easy to see the overriding idea that permeates throughout the film in that Steve Jobs didn’t care if those closest to him liked him or not, that his mind wasn’t wired like the rest of us who find more value in our loved ones affections than worldwide praise. Jobs knew this about himself as he is portrayed here as a very perceptive individual and though it’s clear the people who were heaping such praise upon him didn’t feel connected to him because of his personality, but because of the stuff he made the genius in this is that Jobs made he and his products one in the same. A welcoming, smiling presence with the sense of something bigger behind the curtain when in reality all Apple has ever been is a company designed to make money and keep it’s shareholders happy.
How then, does one cram all of this complex confliction into three set pieces with the same handful of characters coming in and out of our titular character’s life? It’s accomplished by both keeping the themes broad as far as Jobs’ life is concerned while letting the details of his smallest actions speak to these ideas. As Jobs, Fassbender is exceptional at giving the small moments his utmost attention; especially when they are intended to allude to the bigger picture of who this man was as a whole. One such example comes early on in the film when Jobs is arguing not over getting the Macintosh to say, “Hello,” in the demo as he hoped it would, but about the “Exit” signs going dark when the rest of the lights go down during his presentation. It is a detail that could be easily overlooked as the main conflict with Hertzfeld and Chrisann is more than enough to keep this first segment afloat and yet the fact that having the theater in complete darkness so as to elicit a specific response from his audience is such a big deal to Jobs speaks volumes to the type of man he was. With each segment Fassbender is not only required to walk and talk and manage a million things at once while seemingly being fully prepared to go on stage and deliver a well-rehearsed presentation, but as an actor he is readying himself for a major showdown with at least one character per time period. In the 1984 segment that comes with Hertzfeld. Stuhlbarg is one of my favorite character actors working today so to see him go toe to toe with Fassbender in full on dictator mode is thrilling in and of itslef. Their conversations are full of technical jargon and backdoor resolutions for shortcomings that might come up in the demonstration while the more emotionally resonant moments come when Waterston’s Chrisann shows up to illustrate the absurdity of her situation. In short, both resonate in juxtaposing fashion so that we see the beginnings of the aforementioned contradictions.
For the first forty-five minutes or so, as the first act rages on you can feel the buoyancy and the energy with which these actors are soaring through the meaty material. It truly is like watching an all-star sporting event where you’re not concerned with sides or who’s winning or losing, but rather just amazed at being able to see so many people who excel at their craft doing so in the same vicinity. As the second act begins and we can feel the gut punch that Jobs has taken after being exiled from the company he helped found we feel the movie’s pace take the same punch. He is disheartened without being defeated and yet everything about his disposition at that time would have you think he is still the master of the universe, the Da Vinci he likes to think of himself as even if his public persona was nowhere close to that yet. In the second act the film begins to lose steam slightly until Daniels’ Sculley shows up and all the cards are placed on the table. Watching pro’s like Fassbender and Daniels (who, after serving three seasons on Sorkin’s Newsroom, is accustomed to the writer’s style) go at one another is like listening in on an argument between your parents you know you’re not supposed to hear, but can’t help but to keep listening due to the pure intrigue of the truth of what goes on behind closed doors. In the final act, the big confrontation comes in the form of Seth Rogen’s Steve Wozniak or the co-founder of Apple who built the first circuit board in a garage with Jobs in the seventies. While Rogen has only stepped into dramatic territory a couple of times in the past, he plays into Wozniak’s humbly awkward appeal to great effect here by being the bubbling volcano that eventually erupts bringing one of Jobs’ most heartfelt relationships to it’s knees and testing how far he’s actually willing to go to remain in control even if it severs his longest-running friendship.
While Fassbender carries the film, it is Kate Winslet who is the glue that holds it all together. As Joanna Hoffman, Apple’s marketing executive, Winslet is something of Jobs’ closest confidante and the only person he ever feels comfortable enough to be himself around. Their relationship is the one that gives Jobs a human facet, the one outlet to which he can explain his rationale and it somehow make sense in a way that could be understood in typical human terms. Hoffman was also a large proponent of Jobs developing a relationship with his daughter and thus the film puts a large emphasis on the developing relationship between Jobs and Lisa. Given the man was a known terror when it came to the company he was running and the products he was pitching Sorkin and crew stick to the constant condescending nature that Jobs exuded throughout each act with the only aspect in which Jobs is offered any redemption being with his daughter. All of this comes together to form a film that while guided by Sorkin’s script is made whole by the direction of Boyle and the inclusion of multiple Bob Dylan references or insinuations of monk-like rituals and behaviors that will mean more if you know more about Jobs prior to seeing the film. The always moving camera, the extended takes, the framing techniques that vary by time period; everything about the film feels as calculated and as precise as one of Apple’s launches giving the tone a brilliant mimicry with content that is relentlessly captivating. Steve Jobspaints it’s titular character as something of a mythological figure, someone who attained knowledge beyond that of any mere mortal and blessed us with revelations of that knowledge one bit at a time. I have no doubt that is the way the real Jobs would have liked to be remembered and though he’s still is presented as something of an asshole through and through there is a purpose behind his cruelness that pushed everyone around him to work for him and to make him look like the diety his ego always imagined he’d be.