Review: “Steve Jobs”

Steve Jobs

Famed screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s alliance with director David Fincher all the way back in the good old days of 2010 turned out to be a classic chocolate and peanut butter match. Sorkin’s trademark manic dialogue, which rips across the screen like bullets in an action movie, seemed an odd match for Fincher’s slow, brooding direction, but the contrast between those two opposing styles lead to excellent cinematic friction, making The Social Network the classic that it is. In addition to just being entertaining, that movie balanced its characters’ unspoken angst and unwieldy verbiage in a way that accurately spoke to the antithetical alone-together phenomena of the social media age.

If the Sorkin/Fincher pairing was chocolate and peanut butter, then Sorkin’s partnership with director Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours) for Steve Jobs is chocolate-and-chocolate, a double dose of deranged, frenetic energy and flashy showboating. Fincher managed to tame Sorkin’s unwieldiness through scenes of quiet contemplation; Boyle encourages and accentuates both Sorkin’s electric, feverish dialogue as well as his clumsier tendencies. The result is two hours of non-stop bickering that swings on a continuum from overly-technical to overly-abstract. When Sorkin hits the middle of that spectrum (which thankfully is often), it’s pure cinematic bliss, with one crackling line after another for a tour-de-force of film writing. When he misses the mark, as in one unhinged mid-film sequence between Michael Fassbender’s Jobs and Jeff Daniels’ John Sculley as well as a flimsy climax revolving around Fassbender’s teenage daughter, it feels even more hilariously stilted than the worst moments of Sorkins’ perplexingly hit-or-miss show The Newsroom. Ultimately the best lines, the best scenes, and the best plot threads in Steve Jobs are more than worth baring through the more awkward and contrived material.

A recurring complaint from critics has been the film’s wildly over-exaggerated depiction of Jobs’ best and worst qualities, but anyone familiar with The Social Network will know that Sorkin has never attempted to paint an accurate picture of the icons he writes about, but rather caricatured versions that get right to the heart of what they represent to the wider social landscape. The biggest hint that Sorkin truly, unapologetically couldn’t give a shit about authenticity is his unorthodox three act structure, each segment taking place at a different product launch event in the ’80s and ’90s. Each launch is a revolving door in which the same handful of people from Jobs life enter and exit through. What are the odds all of these people were present at each of these launches, and just happened to continue conversations they started years earlier at the last major launch? Zero percent. If you want a more authoritative account of the Apple cofounder, read the biography this movie is supposedly (but not really) based on.

Steve Jobs

The film spans fourteen years of Jobs’ career, but it feels as though it could take place over only three days, with little changing in terms of characters’ motivations or growth. The repeating imagery of these launches calls attention to its own artifical structure, giving more of an impression we’re watching a Shakespearean play than a biographical recollection of events. Though ostensibly a character study, Jobs is the kind of movie less interested in the people than the themes they convey. Sorkin’s Jobs is a metaphor for the clash between the desire to do something great and the need to interact with people who may have different ideas. The movie doesn’t depict a battle between Jobs and Steve Wozniak, Jobs and John Sculley, Jobs and his daughter’s mom, so much as it depicts a raging war between ego and id, individuality and dependency, progress and empathy.

On a formal level, the yelling-match of a script is matched by an equally breakneck editing style and whiplash-inducing camerawork. Boisterous flourishes like lightning-fast montages, split-screen, cross-cutting and visual effects superimposed on walls are all classic Boyle, never one to miss an opportunity to make something look cool-with-a-capital-C, even if it threatens to yank audiences out of the experience. The result of these two unrefined men working at their most unrefined is a gloriously messy, undoubtedly polarizing experience. But you know who else was wildly unrefined, over-the-top, maybe a little bit insane? I think you get where I’m going with this. Just as the sulky stylings of Fincher was a perfect match for Zuckerberg, the slightly-crazed approach Sorkin and Boyle take is the perfect fit in attempting to capture the essence of Apple’s co-founder and, years later, its resurrected savior.

That savior is portrayed by Michael Fassbender in one of 2015’s greatest performances. Though at first distracting just how little Fassbender looks like Jobs (especially compared to Ashton Kutcher in Jobs), the German-Irish actor slowly disappears into the role so that, by the time we get to the last third’s 1998 launch of the iMac, he’s indistinguishable from the man we all (thought we) knew. It’s funny to see how the writer and director’s attempts to cover the film in their distinct fingerprints are so obvious and inorganic, while Fassbender’s performance is so natural and frank. Sorkin and Boyle go to great lengths to make sure everyone knows this is their show, but somehow Fassbender not only steals the show every time he’s on screen (which is most of the time), but he does without breaking a sweat (unless, of course, the scene calls for perspiration).

Steve Jobs

The supporting performances are all strong as well, though Kate Winslet continues 2015’s tradition of dubious Hollywood accents following Benedict Cumberbatch’s Boston accent in Black Mass and whatever the hell Joseph Gordon-Levitt was trying to do in The Walk. Seth Rogen doesn’t give the kind of bravura supporting performance that fellow goofballs like Steve Carrell and Jonah Hill have in their move from comedy to drama, but his Steve Wozniak is easily the most likable character in the film, a source of much needed kindness and good vibes.

Also worth noting are Michael Stuhlbarg as the much put-upon Andy Hertzfeld, Katherine Waterston as insufferably desolate mother to Jobs’ daughter Lisa (though Jobs spends the vast majority of the movie rejecting his paternity), and child actresses Makenzie Moss & Ripley Sobo as the first two incarnations of Lisa. Without convincing, human performances, the dialogue would often just sound like Aaron Sorkin’s voice coming out of a dozen different mouths, so its a testament to the overall dynamism of this cast that the interactions between each character feel so organic, even if a few of them (John Ortiz as a GQ reporter, for example) feel like they were destined for the cutting room floor.

Steve Jobs is this year’s Birdman, another- breathless, exhausting one-man show that’s a little too ambitious and flashy for its own good but nonetheless provides a substantial, forceful depiction of man’s megalomaniacal tendencies. Lively acting, camerawork, editing, scoring and of course writing, assure that no element of the movie gets left behind or lost in the shuffle. It’s full speed ahead from first scene to last, and I could’t help but enjoy being dragged along head first through the whole thing. Though so tireless it can hard to keep up with the dense dialogue, this actually made me excited for a re-watch which is something I don’t often consider. Not nearly as balanced or composed an experience as the comparable Social Network, Steve Jobs is it’s own beast, fearlessly disorganized and flawed in ways that come off as refreshing and human rather than amateurish.

Steve Jobs

Score: 4 out of 5

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