Saturday, October 24, 2015
We think we know Steve Jobs already. That fact represents the challenge faced by writer Aaron Sorkin and director Danny Boyle in turning Steve Jobs (Michael Fassbender) the man into Steve Jobs the movie. Depending on one’s point of view, Jobs was either a visionary with an uncanny ability to anticipate our desire for good-looking technology or a huckster whose ascent into the American Free Market Hall of Fame was the result of piggybacking on others’ work. How to film such a life? Sorkin has arrived at a sort of insistently theatrical structure that almost demands a second viewing, one that puts the important details of Jobs’s personal life in relief against the background of professional high- and lowlights. The result is a film of dizzying intelligence that captures a - not The - version of an inscrutable man.
Steve Jobs takes place on the days of three important product launches: the Macintosh in 1984, the ill-fated NeXT computer in 1988, and the iMac a decade after that when Jobs came back to Apple as CEO. On each day, minutes before going onstage before an eager audience, Jobs is forced into a series of conversations he’d for the most part rather not have. Jobs’s Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak (an excellent Seth Rogen) wants him to acknowledge the importance of the Apple II computer since that machine kept the company afloat while the Macintosh struggled. Right-hand woman Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet) urges Jobs to manage expectations for each new machine and is the only one close enough to lecture him about his personal life. CEO John Scully (Jeff Daniels) is on hand to celebrate and argue with Jobs by turns as each man’s fortunes change. Most important is Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston), whose daughter Lisa (played by Perla Haney-Jardine as a young woman and two younger actresses) Jobs eventually accepted as his own. Were all these people there each time? It doesn’t matter, because Sorkin (working from Walter Isaacson’s biography of Jobs) is using the people in Jobs’s orbit to shine light on the man’s contradictions.
Steve Jobs is the best role Michael Fassbender has had in a studio film, and Fassbender makes the most of it. His Jobs keeps ego, ambition, and self-doubt in play at all times and - in a film that doesn’t brake for sentiment - is very moving in a scene when Jobs confronts just how badly he may have failed Lisa. The climactic argument between Jobs and Wozniak is a stunner of a scene, and the way Boyle stages it (two men yelling across a large auditorium) supports my theory that Steve Jobs could work just as well if staged as a play. Wozniak wants Jobs to acknowledge Apple II, and by implication the idea that Apple for a time survived despite Jobs. Fassbender’s Jobs, on the verge of a rebirth, can’t do what Wozniak asks, and in the performance we can see how much denying a friend cost Jobs. (By the way, there’s still a great movie to be made about the early days of Silicon Valley.) The rest of the supporting cast is uniformly strong, with Jeff Daniels particularly good as a man who knows when he’s outgunned and Michael Stuhlbarg finding offbeat notes as a colleague who treads into Jobs’s relationship with Lisa. Kate Winslet’s role is primarily to move the film along, but she manages to infuse Joanna with great good humor and some needed jolts of anger. Each of these supporting characters is written in relation to Jobs, but all of the actors fill out their roles and suggest people with their own lives and concerns.
Picking out details from Steve Jobs obscures the fact that Sorkin doesn’t crack the mysteries at the center of his hero’s heart. There’s an expository arc about Jobs’s childhood that I think is meant to serve as motivation, but while Steve Jobs is structurally daring and terrifically acted (Danny Boyle’s direction is largely unobtrusive) it is also a film about a man who fetishized presentation. Maybe that’s the point. Steve Jobs gave us the future and then went away before we knew how or why he did it.