Movie Review: Steve Jobs (2015)

Steve-Jobs-Michael-Fassbender

Steve Jobs—mythological computer pioneer,  tech savvy guru, and unpleasant rationalist who kept his life relentlessly private—remains to this day a complex enigma. No matter how extensively he is psychoanalyzed through news articles, biographies (most notably Walter Isaacson’s 2013 acclaimed best seller Steve Jobs), or even documentaries, the man remains a mystery to those who idolize him, especially to those who knew him. So it’s unsurprising that if you were to compare and contrast Alex Gibney’s comprehensive documentary Steve Jobs: Man in the Machine (2015) with this latest biopic by screenwriter Aaron Sorkin and director Danny Boyle, you would be hard pressed to find a reflection of the same man. That’s partially because Sorkin’s script for Steve Jobs leans heavily towards the allegorical—an explicitly fictional, yet thoroughly thought provoking, character study utilizing the persona of Steve Jobs to reflect on the nature, the foibles, and the aptitude of what it means to be a visionary. According to Sorkin (whether it’s an unabashed skepticism in deconstructing the man from myth, or a vividly penned self-portrait of the writer himself) visionaries are lonely, tormented individuals, crippled by ambition, isolated by a combination of ego and insecurity, and constantly seeking out the next self-satisfying creation. These are the layers explored in Steve Jobs—a paradox of tribute and critique, biography and fantasy, seeking to explore a larger moral question of whether or not virtue can coincide with success.

Paradox seems the only presentation suitable for the enigmatic contradictions that defined Steve Jobs—he was the face of emerging technology; yet, he never designed, engineered, or coded a computer. He was democratic in championing a computer for the masses; yet, a totalitarian when it came to business. He possessed resounding empathy for human desires; yet, he employed people as opportunistic instruments. While all of this has been reflected on before, Sorkin’s script for Steve Jobs seeks to utilize these known qualities to uncover a deeper truth to the man—one explored through dramatic invention and personal crisis. Through a non-traditional biopic format of three meticulously examined and exceptionally written one-act plays, Sorkin simplifies the immensity of Walter Isaacson’s 2013 biography into a palpable focus on the essence of the man rather than the events. Each chapter focuses on the backstage dramatics preceding three different product launches: the optimistic presentation of the Macintosh in 1984; the manipulative business move that was the NeXT cube in 1988; and the unveiling of the infamous, multi-colored iMac in 1998. By making use of what could be considered failed product launches, Sorkin highlights the tumultuous, unpredictable nature of the industry and the uneasiness accentuated by Steve Jobs’ rarely satisfied visionary ambitions. But, similar to how The Social Network (2010) was not about the invention of Facebook, or that Moneyball (2011) was not about baseball, Steve Jobs is not about the relationship he had with his products. Instead, each of these films written by Sorkin are about the relationships between people, or specifically the use of people—for better social status (Social Network), for stats manipulation (Moneyball), or for the implementation of a vision (Steve Jobs).

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Through each engaging chapter of Steve Jobs, there are a set of recurring characters challenging Jobs’ vision—the “work-wife” marketing executive Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), the challenger sibling Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogan), the surrogate father Apple CEO John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), the berated student Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg), the remorseful lover Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston), and estranged daughter Lisa (Mackenzie Moss, Ripley Sobo, and Perla Haney-Jardine). Each are existent and mentioned in Walter Isaacson’s biography, but used in the film through pristine “play fashion”—to instill personal crisis, incessant denial, dramatic realization, and hope of personal redemption in the artificially constructed figure of Steve Jobs. This complex interpretation is brought to life through Michael Fassbender’s transformative performance, one that brings an exceptional metamorphosis, as he gradually melds together reality and invention of Jobs into someone tangible. Though Fassbender is the critical anchor of the piece, he is pushed and pulled into fascinating dramatic directions by his fellow cast, as they uncover pieces of the elusive former Apple CEO behind the mask. Layers of character complexity and subtle hints of personal psychology are displayed as the cast maneuvers through the Sorkinian attributes of the script, including the “walk and talk,” soaring lyrical monologues, and quip heavy repartees. And despite the frantic pacing, the overwhelming verbiage, and the heavy contemplations, Steve Jobs finds coherence in the confusion through Danny Boyle’s directorial hold on the material.

Boyle finds elegant and complimentary syncopation to Sorkin’s rhythms, which strongly showcases the British filmmakers known ability to bring relentless kinetic energy to his visualized subject matter. And yet, Boyle is at his most reserved in Steve Jobs—a drastic deviation from his last three features of Slumdog Millionaire (2008), 127 Hours (2010), and Trance (2013), which relied heavily on style. While his signature anxious, agitated movement with the camera remains (handled by cinematographer Alwin H. Küchler), it’s done with an omnipotent sense that each image is captured with surgical purpose. In fact, each separated one-act chapter has distinct visual flair—1984 utilizes 16mm for subtle grain and a washed-out palate; 1988 uses 35mm to create richness of color; and 1998 incorporates the modern clarity of digital cinematography. It’s a visual gimmick that plays into the renewal and evolution of technology that is wonderfully apparent in Sorkin’s script. Fast cutting of close-ups, dialogue heavy interactions, and swiftly moving bodies create a rather illogical sense of tension to scenarios that consist only of human interaction, thanks to Daniel Pemberton’s rich score, accentuating the nervousness of each scene’s intimacy. But Boyle takes clear command of the technical acrobatics, and serves Sorkin’s vision with an apt sense of delicacy, giving Steve Jobs a taut sense of control, while simultaneously disorienting the audience’s experience.

Film Title: Steve Jobs

The collaboration of Danny Boyle’s cinematic kinetics and Aaron Sorkin’s soaring verbiage possesses some minor cracks within its pristine foundation—most notably a circular repetition of themes, a relentless bombardment of dialogue, and an unexplained ending, hinting toward historical reinvention. However, these moments of flawed delivery enhance the character study behind Steve Jobs. Sorkin’s intention was to find the cracks of humanity that have elevated the established mythos of Steve Jobs to the corporate version of sainthood. This anguished, verbose, and obsessive-compulsive fictionalized version of Jobs may only hint at reality, but it’s a useful dramatic measure in attempting to expose the drive behind visionary success and a moral critique on the necessary part that virtue should play. Sorkin’s script borders on Shakespearean (reminiscent of the Bard’s historical fictional accounts of Henry V, Richard III, and Macbeth) as it utilizes creative liberties and moral insights to ponder a man’s intentions, accomplishments, and failures. He puts the celebrated public figure into a capsule of dramatic invention, seeking to explore a truth beyond the biographical—an incredible ambition executed with equal mastery. Steve Jobs was a visionary and we all live in the world he envisioned. But, oftentimes there are things in this world beyond scope and beyond control; and, Steve Jobs explores those possibilities with poignant and noble insight.

Grade: A-

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