Monday, October 19, 2015

New movie review: Steve Jobs

Michael Fassbender stars as Steve Jobs in director Danny Boyle's new film Steve Jobs.

Apple founder Steve Jobs is a hard character to pin down. Some want to paint him as a god of the tech industry, a forward-thinking innovator, and a full-stop genius. Others think of him as closer to the devil, a temperamental tyrant, and a fraud who was not responsible for half the things for which he gets credit. As ever, the truth is likely somewhere between the two extremes, but death has a polarizing effect on the way we interpret the legacies of prominent figures. Look at Ronald Reagan.

Since his death from cancer in 2011, the company he founded has only grown in power, influence, and ubiquity, and there have been countless attempts to place Jobs’ contributions to the culture in a larger context. They feature titles such as Genius by Design and How Steve Jobs Changed the World. In many cases, though, they are just his name followed by a colon and some positive or negative descriptor, depending on the point the makers want to communicate.

For the new film from director Danny Boyle and writer Aaron Sorkin, the filmmakers drop the descriptor. It is just Steve Jobs. It gives the impression this will be the definitive portrait of the man and his machines, but it is not that, nor does it try to be. Instead, Sorkin’s script is broken down into three snapshots of Jobs’ life – or rather, his career, following as it does three product launches that define the arc of his time with Apple.

Sorkin is an undeniably good writer, and he has given us a slew of great television shows (The West Wing; Sports Night; The Newsroom) and films (A Few Good Men; An American President; The Social Network). As ever, his dialogue crackles with the humor and intelligence for which he is known. The problem is that the snapshot structure does not work for telling this story. There is simultaneously too much condensed into these three moments and too much left out.

To the first point, by sticking rigidly to this structure, save for two brief flashback sequences, Sorkin must include everything he wants us to know about Jobs in dialogue set on just three days in his life. There are five or six main characters, and each one’s story has a beginning, middle, and end, but because we are seeing only three specific days, each character arc happens on the same contrived timeline.

Movies are contrivances, but this stretches credulity. By the time Jobs points out how every product launch, it seems like everyone goes to the same bar, gets drunk, and tells him what they really think, you just get angry at Sorkin for clearly being aware of this flaw but taking no steps to address it.

Michael Stuhlbarg, Fassbender, and Kate Winslet in Steve Jobs.
Conversely, the movie is fairly empty when it comes to Jobs’ work. By choosing to show us only these product launches – the Macintosh, the NEXT, and the iMac, respectively – Sorkin fails to explore Jobs’ creative process. It is the ultimate tell-not-show movie as we hear in dialogue over and over how brilliant he is but never actually see that brilliance in action. Some of this falls on Boyle’s doorstep, but the density of Sorkin’s script leaves little room to play with form.

Boyle is an excellent director, but this is his most restrained and constricted film – an assessment that includes 127 Hours, about a man literally trapped in one spot for nearly the duration of the film. Gone for most of the runtime is Boyle’s usual flair for dramatic camera movement and clever, propulsive editing. It feels almost workmanlike, which is unfortunate because the best part of Boyle’s films has always been the directorial stamp he places on them.

However, where Sorkin’s work constrains the director to a degree, his words give all the performers the chance to soar, none more than Michael Fassbender as Jobs. Fassbender is a wonderful, chameleon-like actor who has shown his range in projects as diverse as 12 Years a Slave, Shame, the X-Men films, and Frank. As Jobs, he finds a new part to play – the petulant genius – and he is astounding. Though Fassbender little resembles Jobs nor really sounds like him, he discovers the character of Jobs. His performance is less an imitation of the man than an interpretation, and it works beautifully.

Fassbender, a longtime stage actor with a facility for language that helps tremendously with Sorkin’s dialogue, is by turns menacing and gentle. He thankfully avoids the pitfalls so many other actors fall into when portraying tech geniuses – often playing them as somewhere on the autism spectrum – and instead builds brick by brick the figure of a confident, volatile icon. Nothing in the film would work without the steady, grounded work of Fassbender. The film necessarily revolves around Jobs, like a hurricane, and Fassbender is the perfectly calm eye at the center of the storm.

Jeff Daniels in Steve Jobs.
The rest of the cast swirling around him is stellar as well, beginning with Kate Winslet as Joanna Hoffman, Jobs’ head of marketing and closest confidant. Hoffman is the film’s moral center and the one person in Jobs’ life with the wherewithal to stand up to him as she stands by him. Winslet matches Fassbender beat for beat and is able to project strength even as she shows warmth.

As former Apple CEO John Sculley, Jeff Daniels is given a fairly obvious archetype to play in Jobs’ father figure, but Daniels finds nuance and shading in the two men’s relationship that is not strictly on the page. In the middle section, the film’s best sequence has Sculley asking Jobs why the world thinks he fired his protégé from Apple.

It is one of the only scenes where Boyle is able to liven up the proceedings with a series of rapid-fire edits between their present-day argument and Jobs’ removal from Apple, the film’s only extended flashback. The editing ramps up the tension, while Daniels and Fassbender bring energy and passion to the conversation. Sculley is the only person in the film Jobs consistently out-maneuvers, and Daniels finds in Sculley a beaten man who refuses to go down without a fight.

In the “character actors who deserve to work more” category, we have Michael Stuhlbarg and Katherine Waterston in small but pivotal roles as Jobs’ employee and ex-girlfriend, respectively. Stuhlbarg, who was excellent in this year’s Pawn Sacrifice and will also appear in Trumbo, is one of my favorite actors and one of Hollywood’s best reactors. His changes in expression say a hundred things his words never could, and his character’s hurt silences are among the most affecting moments in the film.

Waterston, who was tremendous in last year’s Inherent Vice and the best thing about the Alex Ross Perry misfire Queen of Earth this year, stuns in a few brief scenes as the mother of Jobs’ daughter. As written, she is all fire and fury, but Waterston is able to create levels of sorrow and repressed rage that even Sorkin may have missed.

What we are left with is an often brilliant, sometimes frustrating film about an often brilliant, sometimes frustrating man. Boyle perhaps does not do enough as a director to rein in Sorkin’s more writerly tendencies, but the performances are so magical that it is impossible to look away. By refusing to take a clear stance on the man or his work, Steve Jobs functions more like a Rorschach test for viewers. You will see in Jobs what you want to see in him – saint or sinner, paragon or pretender – but the film’s real achievement is that no matter what you see, afterward, you are more likely to see a human.

See it? Yes.

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