Tuesday, October 13, 2015
Steve Jobs (***1/2)
Directed by Danny Boyle
It's hard to conjure initial thoughts of Steve Jobs because it's so rare to watch a film in which its plainly obvious just how un-fucked-with the screenplay is. If it wasn't obvious just how much Aaron Sorkin owed to Paddy Chayefsky, then it becomes so after seeing Jobs. No non-directing screenwriter has ever been so fully responsible for the final cut since Chayefsky's groundbreaking Network in 1976. Not that Jobs is the same kind of groundbreaking cinematic achievement that Network is, but both films present elemental theses about their writers that go on to define what they, better or worse, represent. Now, Steve Jobs is actually Sorkin's second vision of Silicon Valley after 2010's The Social Network which was an equally unflattering portrait of a computer tyrant, Mark Zuckerberg. If The Social Network painted Zuckerberg as almost autistically dismissive of humanity, Sorkin now sees Jobs as a sociopathic monster - neither men come off as particularly influential, as they do detrimental. If the history of the world is a collection of tales involving powerful white men bullying there way to the front of the stage, Sorkin feels Steve Jobs should be singled out for his megalomania. Sorkin gets away with this because the characters in his films aren't really people, but ideas. Steve Jobs isn't really about Steve Jobs in the same way The Social Network isn't really about Zuckerberg, because even if they are in fact based on real people, they're actually Freudian constructs of what Sorkin sees as the tragedy of the pursuit of the American ideal. There is always a risk of Sorkin becoming heavy-handed (**cough** The Newsroom), but Steve Jobs is Sorkin at his best, an American moralist with an unmatched gift for dialogue and whose scene construction is above what anyone else can bring to the table.
The structure of the screenplay for Jobs feels a bit like showing off. Broken off into three distinct parts, we're always shown Steve Jobs (Michael Fassbender) moments before a major product launch. First, it's the 1984 Macintosh personal computer; secondly, the NeXT computer in 1988, Jobs' attempt to compete with Apple after being voted out of the company because of his erratic egomania; and lastly, the first iMac in 1998, as Jobs returns to Apple as a savior with a revolutionary new product. Each of the three parts are tense-filled time bombs, with Jobs fighting the same demons - most of his own making - and having the same conversations with the same people about the same things. With his partner, Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), co-founder of Apple, Steve's reluctance to acknowledge the commercial success of Woz's Apple II operating system creates an ever-expanding rift - Steve sees the Apple II as fast food, and his creations as the prime steak. With Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg), the head of the Mac team, Steve's dictatorial behavior reaches its peak as he threatens and demeans one of his most valuable assets. With Apple CEO, John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), Steve's pursuit of a father figure plays out publicly, with Sculley doing his best to support his most brilliant mind, despite the obvious abuse Steve doles out to his subordinates. With Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston), a paternity battle rages as she demands support from the now supremely rich Jobs for their daughter, Lisa (played by three different actresses throughout the three parts: Makenzie Moss, Ripley Sobo and Perla Haney-Jardine), a child Steve insists is not his.
The redundancy of all these conversations creates a cyclical nature in the screenplay the rolls around and around throughout. The film is a circle. The characters talk in circles, and for good portions of the film they actually walk in circles. As Sorkin tightens the grip with each third of the film, the view shrinks further and further onto Jobs until he's laid bare. Wozniak, Hertzfeld and Sculley are no longer pulling their punches on the maddeningly headstrong Jobs, but letting their true opinions known. Steve's only true ally throughout it all is Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), Steve's professional confidante and Mac team marketer, who appears to be the only person who can survive the intellectual sparring and perpetual condescension that Steve brings to everyday conversation. It's Joanna's job to stress and look at her watch as Steve makes insane demands fifteen minutes before a product launch, but she is also the person who holds tightly to the ever-tenuous tether keeping Steve attached to the human world. It's Joanna who insists that Steve play nice with Wozniak and Sculley after their relationship went south at Apple, and it's Joanna who insists that Steve maintain a relationship with Lisa when he's convinced that he's not the father, and she comes particularly insistent when it becomes obvious that he actually is. Joanna is the wife at work that Steve could not bare to have outside of it, and it's the closest thing he has to a true human connection in the whole film.
The performances from Fassbender and Winslet are the foundation for which the emotional structure of the film is placed. They're perfect foils and yet contain such a brilliant chemistry together, Fassbender portraying oppressive single-mindedness and Winslet begging for the inch of humanity that our main character is willing to give. There are moments early in the film where Fassbender seems just too sexy to play someone as technological as Steve Jobs - he certainly doesn't have the uncanny resemblance that Ashton Kutcher brought to the much less successful Jobs from 2013 - but as Fassbender continues his trajectory as our generation's Daniel Day-Lewis, the Irish actor adds yet another wonderfully complex performance in a quickly-filling resume. Like Day-Lewis, Fassbender's ever-present glimpses of menace adds to an overall of aura of ferocity; he can be louder with a whisper than most actors can be with a shout. His Steve Jobs is part mimicry, part embodiment. He doesn't truly have to worry about becoming Steve Jobs, because he's working with a screenplay that's mostly fiction. He's able to fully realize the Steve Jobs that Sorkin hoped to conjure. Winslet does not have the burden of iconography, and is able to imbue Joanna Hoffman with much more to make what could have easily become a one-note character truly whole. With the faint but stern presence of an Eastern European accent (Hoffman comes from Poland), Winslet is the sole selfless voice in a sea of men begging for credit, attention, professional acknowledgment, but this is not a selfless performance. It's her strongest work in many years.
Steve Jobs is more of an ensemble than you may have been led to believe. Fassbender is in nearly every frame, but the whirling carousel of Rogen, Stuhlbarg, Daniels and Waterston filter in and out without much of a beat missed with each arrival and exit. This is the best ensemble performance I've seen this year, each actor succumbing fully to Sorkin's words, but still able to find their own humanity within them. Stuhlbarg, in particular, as the mopish Hertzfeld, gives a strong performance, as we see his meek acceptance of Steve's abuse morph into quiet defiance by the film's end. Again, it's impossible to overstate just how fully everyone consigns themselves to the work of a screenwriter the way they do here. Even director Danny Boyle, an Oscar-winning director, pares down his frantic style down to an essence. Jobs is certainly more Sorkin's film than Boyle, but there is a bit more directorial conviction then some might conceed. Like Sorkin, Boyle's movies are based almost entirely on rhythm, and while most directors can be spotted by the shots they can construct, Boyle's influence has always been felt mostly in the editing. The cuts throughout the film are sharp, on par with Boyle's most layered, complex work, and if Boyle brings anything to Sorkin's script it's an embrace of an elliptical energy. It would be easy for a lesser director to get bogged down by all the words that Sorkin can throw at you, but Boyle sees it as an opportunity to hum along, letting each third of the film crescendo in its own way, let it be in heartbreak or harmony.
Sorkin played loose when it came to fact and fiction when he wrote The Social Network, and it seems with Steve Jobs he took even more liberties. The film never feels like the hardened, Oscar-baiting biopic that many will expect it to be. It's thesis is too broad to have any real interest in recreating the man that was the genius. I personally felt he was a bit meaner to Zuckerberg who he basically cast off as a spurned malcontent. With Jobs, we have Isaacson's massive book to show us the cruelty that he was capable of. And yet, still, the movie still seems in awe of him, and overall appreciative of what his combativeness netted both him and the popular culture as a result. Sorkin doesn't stick the landing perfectly. The film's immediate ending felt a little off to me. It's too anthemic, too neat. It's hard to watch two hours of monstrosity and then believe that the Grinch's heart grew three sizes very conveniently in time for the audience to go home. But this is exactly the kind of construct in which Sorkin's ideas shine brightest. Sorkin's Moneyball was a baseball film that didn't have a whole lot of interest in baseball, and like that film, Steve Jobs is probably harder to enjoy the more you know about the actual Steve Jobs. Some will complain (and already have) that Sorkin and Boyle have a responsibility to the subject, but we got the Ashton Kutcher-starring, more facts-oriented Jobs in 2013, and nobody seemed very interested in that. Steve Jobs is, for all intents and purposes, a fictional story, a truncated abridgment of one of America's most fascinating business minds. It's a film written, directed and acted with great skill, and if Wozniak, Hertzfeld and Sculley have all given their blessing to the film, who's to say Steve Jobs wouldn't have as well?