Film Review: Steve Jobs

Structured as a fast-paced three-act play, Danny Boyle’s 'Steve Jobs' is a mesmerizing and invigorating piece of filmmaking, with a high-wire Aaron Sorkin stamp all over it.
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The name Steve Jobs as another film title might be an instant turn-off for many, considering the number of movies–both small and major–that have already put the Apple co-founder and entrepreneurial genius under the spotlight since he lost his battle to cancer in 2011. Released just a few weeks ago, Alex Gibney’s competent yet somewhat conflicted documentary Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine painted an unflattering portrait of the jeans-and-black-turtleneck-wearing tech whiz as a disreputably amoral businessman and notoriously difficult boss/co-worker, while also being mesmerized by Apple’s oeuvre and undeniable appeal. It seems like yesterday that Joshua Michael Stern’s Jobs, starring Ashton Kutcher,was released and hit by a middling-to-chilly critical reception in 2013. So you might rightfully wonder if we really need another Steve Jobs film that aims to find out who this man really was beyond his public persona.

Feeling at once inevitable, Danny Boyle’s Aaron Sorkin-scripted Steve Jobs–an end-to-end virtuosic piece of filmmaking–thankfully puts all these hesitations and worries to bed, creating a level of polished intricacy worthy of its equally complicated namesake, played by an exquisite Michael Fassbender. While he doesn’t necessarily look or sound like Jobs, Fassbender explores his character with a temperate precision that reaches beyond note-to-note impersonation, not only speaking Sorkin’s dialogue but oftentimes singing it. With Sorkin’s trademark style full of fiery exchanges and fast-paced tête-à-têtes (necessitating a second viewing, but what Sorkin film doesn’t?), Steve Jobs is not your typical, run-of-the-mill biopic about the early days and rise/fall of a publicly significant figure. It is, instead, a battle of minds, egos and emotions set against a grandiose, three-pronged theatrical stage with Jobs at the epicenter. It is thus far one of this year’s most artistically endearing and intellectually stimulating mainstream films, with what could be the most Sorkinesque of all Sorkin feature scripts. The words on the page are as first-rate as–if not greater than–the brilliant The Social Network, Sorkin’s earlier stab at cracking the code to another genius/asshole who changed the way we communicate.

The phenomenal text offers no moment of relief, and instead challenges the viewer to keep up with the action like a character within the Apple-backstage setting. Based on Walter Isaacson's biography and structured as a three-act play, Steve Jobs chronicles three key product launches in Jobs’ life, moments that defined his career and built his larger-than-life personality: the Macintosh computer in 1984, Next in 1988 and iMac in 1998, which undoubtedly kicked off the most popular phase of the Jobs trajectory. Each chapter takes place exactly 40 minutes before these launches, through which we get to watch Jobs walk, talk and exchange ideas during well-paced long takes and launch himself in heated arguments with various people crucial in his life. The ever-accelerating and evolving story aptly drives Birdman comparisons in its uninterrupted feel, but an equally accurate analogy can be derived from the films of Martin Scorsese: Imagine the speedy twirl of the helicopter/marinara sauce scene from GoodFellas, but with brainy talk. And multiply it by three.

Kate Winslet, in one of her career-best roles, assumes the role of Jobs confidant and marketing expert Joanna Hoffman, and is easily one of the film’s greatest assets as the only person who isn’t scared of the man, balancing his power with her unapologetic confidence. Additionally, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), ex-Apple CEO John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), and most importantly Jobs’ ex-girlfriend Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston, quietly, achingly terrific) and their daughter Lisa (played by Ripley Sobo, Makenzie Moss and Perla Haney-Jardine at different ages) all seek and claim their rightful stakes in Jobs' life in each of the high-energy crisis-mode sequences. Sorkin invents many of the exchanges and infuses reality with his artistic imagination—he defined the film as a “painting, rather than a photograph” at a Telluride press conference. Most of all, he manages to boil Steve Jobs down to a relatable father-daughter story at its core, humanizing a less-than-lovable man who refuses to acknowledge the accomplishments of a Wozniak-led team in designing Apple II, denies his biological ties, and repeatedly treats Chrisann unjustly, and emotionally grounding this often-challenging film.

While Sorkin’s stamp is all over the story and dialogue, Danny Boyle’s directorial touch manifests itself with purposefully bold camera angles and risky creative choices that pay off. The film’s look–just like Jobs’ persona and even the Apple brand–evolves from grainy to crisp, with chapters shot in 16mm, 35mm and digital, respectively. Under Boyle’s direction, Steve Jobs finds a positive and even hopeful note, with the help of crackerjack editing by Elliot Graham and a memorable score by Daniel Pemberton perfectly weaved into the fabric of the film.

The sharp shift in Jobs’ personality in the very decisive finale–in which he finally reconciles with his daughter–might come across as a bit of a copout for a multifaceted film of this nature. It’s an uncharacteristically tidy, dreamlike and convenient way to close the Jobs circle. Yet Steve Jobs remains a mesmerizing, unclassifiable experience, distant and near at once. Just like Jobs himself.

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