Release: Friday, October 23, 2015
Written by: Aaron Sorkin
Directed by: Danny Boyle
The poor return on investment regarding Danny Boyle’s take on the iGenius is quite surprising considering the quality of the product. As of this posting, Steve Jobs has just barely recouped half of its original $30 million budget, suggesting that perhaps the third time is not the charm. (Steve Jobs follows on the heels of Alex Gibney’s documentary Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine, and arrives two years after Ashton Kutcher donned the glasses and black turtleneck in Jobs.)
Seems many are already thinking differently and choosing not to sit through yet another episode. It’s unfortunate because Michael Fassbender’s transformative performance, along with another scintillating Aaron Sorkin screenplay, one based partly on interviews he conducted and the Walter Isaacson biography of the same name, all but epitomize compelling cinema. Steve Jobs, the man, with all his idiosyncrasies and flare for making dramatic last-second requests of his thoroughly overburdened staff, is almost too good to be true.
Steve Jobs grants audiences backstage passes to three significant product launches, exposing them to the environmental, political and psychological conditions that, at least in the framework of the film, lend greater weight to the public unveilings. While the three-act construction has invited criticism over the fact it’s programmed to repeat itself — the story features the launch of the Macintosh in 1984, the NeXT Computer in 1988 (the result of Jobs’ brief departure from Apple in the wake of the failed Macintosh), and finally the iMac a decade later — there is beauty in simplicity.
The cyclical pattern yields an unexpected irony. The film boots up on a dramatic but effective note. Lack of exposure to Jobs’ abrasive personality is a great possibility for viewers not well-versed in their Apple history but in the span of a ten-minute scene wherein he insists he doesn’t have a daughter nor any financial responsibility to former girlfriend Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston), the cards are laid out for all to see. Alas, the curse of being gifted. The irony? Simply how applicable that old adage is: ignorance really is bliss. Are we better off knowing the jerk or just the icon? Alas, the curse of being better-informed.
Meanwhile a crowd buzzing with excitement begins stomping their feet in the auditorium in preparation for the revolution. Backstage, its creator is at war with personnel and with himself. In this particular setting technical issues arise when a failed voice demo, wherein the Mac is intended to greet the world with a friendly ‘Hello,’ sends Jobs into overdrive, prompting him to bring the heat down on engineer Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg).
Like it or not, we’re going to become privy to more of Jobs’ brutal demands as the clock ticks away. Boyle makes sure to cut away just before Jobs steps out on stage — his instincts telling him the presentations themselves aren’t as interesting as the drama of Jobs’ crippling social awkwardness. Watch Jobs clash ideologically with former CEO John Sculley (Jeff Daniels, absolutely brilliant) as he attempts to make clear his vitality to a floundering company. His conversations with cofounder and closest ‘friend’ Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen, masterfully restraining himself) serve as some of the harshest truths as Jobs argues Woz and the rest of the team behind the Apple II — widely considered a failed product — deserve no credit for what they did years earlier.
Then of course there’s the motif of Jobs’ on-again, off-again flirtation with assistant Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet, and you guessed it, she’s also excellent). Hoffman remains by his side throughout, trying her best to manage expectations — good luck — and manage Jobs’ near-tyrannical approach to seizing control of the company he had created.
Where the repetition begins to truly bear fruit is the frequent reemergence of key characters in Sculley, whose relationship with Jobs throughout the film is fraught with tension, and a now matured Lisa Brennan (Perla Haney-Jardine), who Jobs has finally recognized as his own. Jobs eventually makes amends with the former CEO prior to the introduction of the iMac but Hoffman reminds him that his withholding of Lisa’s college tuition has embittered her profoundly.
The design was certainly a gamble. But repetition, as it applies to many things in reality, provides opportunities to improve and advance. Evaluate and reinvent. That’s precisely what happens in this taut and disciplined story, an emotional crescendo resultant from our third-party witness to his brutally honest interactions with a core group of individuals. It’s absurd to think of Fassbender as an insufficient box office draw — though I won’t deny names like Leo and Christian Bale would have upped the numbers — as the Irish actor has proven lately the depths of his emotive abilities as well as his tendency to play cruel characters. Leo’s too big and if you think Fassbender doesn’t look the part, how could Bale ever hope to succeed?
All of this isn’t to say the film is flawless. It’s not quite the product we’d presume its subject would like it to be. Boyle simply can’t resist the urge to tie the narrative up in a white little bow at the end, using the top level of a metropolitan parking garage as a setting to downplay the gravity of Jobs’ ultimate apology. An apology that couldn’t have come at a more awkward and unlikely time. It’s something close to heartwarming to watch unfold, yet for everything the film has done to prove why his Machiavellian mentality puts him in a category all his own, this is a betrayal.
Recommendation: Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay is, in my mind, a serious Oscar contender. Richly dialogue-driven drama features few scenes where there isn’t someone going on a verbal tirade either on the offense or in defense of themselves and their reputations. Talky pictures aren’t everyone’s cup of tea but if they are yours, you won’t find many films this year that create such an intense atmosphere and a generally dramatic picture than Steve Jobs. I don’t think I care much for the guy but I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed this examination of him.
Running Time: 122 mins.
Quoted: “We will know soon enough if you are Leonardo da Vinci or just think you are.”
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