Written PostJosh Reviews Steve Jobs

Josh Reviews Steve Jobs

The film Steve Jobs, written by Aaron Sorkin and directed by Danny Boyle, is divided into three vignettes, each taking place in the moments before Steve Jobs will go on-stage to announce the launch of a new product.  The first vignette is in 1984, at the launch of the Macintosh computer.  The second is in 1988, after Jobs’ ouster from Apple (the company he had co-founded), at Jobs’ presentation of the NeXT computer.  The third and final vignette is in 1988.  Jobs is back at Apple and is about to present the iMac.

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Steve Jobs has a very theatrical feeling, with its three-act/three-vignette structure.  Though the film is an original screenplay, written by Aaron Sorkin based on Walter Isaacson’s 2011 biography of Mr. Jobs, as well as on additional interviews conducted by Mr. Sorkin and the filmmaking team, it feels very much like an adaptation of a play.  The tone reminds me very much of some of the films that David Mamet wrote, adapting his own plays, both because of the very stylized dialogue and also because of the theatrical structure.  (This is on my mind as I just last week watched Mr. Mamet’s 1996 film American Buffalo for the first time, which is an adaptation of Mr. Mamet’s stage play of the same name.)

I sort of love this three-act structure here in Steve Jobs.  The challenge of biopics is that of condensing a subject’s entire life into a two-hour film.  Many biopics over-reach, trying to cram in every major life event of the subject, and wind up feeling bloated and, at the same time, very superficial.  I tend to prefer the approach taken by films like Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln that focus in more narrowly on a specific period in the subject’s life.  Here in Steve Jobs, Mr. Sorkin has taken a different, and very clever, approach.  By dividing the film into three sequences at three different points in Mr. Jobs’ life, we are able to get a sense of the over-all ups and downs of his career, while also allowing the film to have a clear focus: on these three momentous events in Mr. Jobs’ life and career.

When watching biopics, or any films based on real-life people and/or events, I often find myself judging the film based on its accuracy to the real-life events.  I hate it when films twist the truth of real-life people or events in order to make what they think is a more palatable story for a movie.  A film like A Beautiful Mind was well-made and well-performed, but it seemed to so clearly gloss over some of the difficult realities of John Nash that I found I had little patience for it.  (Also it stole its ending from Fight Club, but that’s a topic for another time!)  I have not seen The Imitation Game, but my desire to do so was diminished by reports that it is chock-full of historical inaccuracies, making up conflict where none existed, which is especially egregious in that case, where Alan Turing’s real life was son compelling and complex.  Sometimes I am able to do research, either before or after watching a film, to help myself determine how accurate that film was to reality.  Sometimes, though, when watching a film, I don’t really have any idea how true-to-life it is, and instead I must judge the film based on whether it “feels” real.  Just recently I wrote about the 2014 WWII film Fury I am not nearly knowledgeable enough to be able to judge the accuracy of the film.  However, to me, the first half of the film “felt” real to me, in the gritty, visceral way the filmmakers brought the audience right into the middle of brutal WWII tank combat.  On the other hand, the film’s finale, during which the tank crew heroically stays for a last stand and is able to take out hundreds of Nazi SS officers, “felt” very fake, very Hollywood to me.

Steve Jobs “feels” very fake to me, very artificial.  Did Steve Jobs really have deep interactions with the same cadre of five-or-so people in the hour before each of these three major product launches?  I highly doubt it!!  On the other hand, the beauty of the film’s play-like structure is that the film already feels, just based on that structure, like a very artificial construct.  And so I was able to more easily buy into the moments of the film where I was thinking to myself, “that can’t have really happened.”  Because the film itself has a very stylized, very artificial structure — these three vignettes — I could look at the film not as an attempt to perfectly chronicle the reality of these three moments in Steve Jobs’ life, but instead as an artificial, almost metaphorical, way to present to the audience the arcs of these relationships with these significant people in Steve Jobs’ life, all as a vehicle for allowing us to try to better understand Steve Jobs as a person.  I think this is very clever.

The film’s script by the great Aaron Sorkin is, no surprise, very strong.  There are some wonderfully witty exchanges and a terrific sense of the tense, fast-paced scenes prior to these three major product launches.  No one writes fast-paced and tense like Aaron Sorkin!!  For the Sorkin scholars reading this, yes, of course some of Mr. Sorkin’s favorite themes find their way into the script.  I’m thinking in particular of the thread of Jobs’ discussion with John Sculley (Jeff Daniels) about Jobs’ adoption (and also the way Jobs saw Sculley as a father-figure), which is a continuation of Mr. Sorkin’s long-standing obsession on the relationships between fathers and sons.  I suspect many people’s mileage will vary as to whether they like that sort of thing or find it to be a distraction.

While Mr. Sorkin’s script is great, the film really rests on the shoulders of the incredible cast that has been assembled to bring Mr. Sorkin’s words to life.  Michael Fassbender is fantastic in the title role.  He’s on-screen for almost every second of the film, and he is magnetic.  He’s able to convey Mr. Jobs’ brilliance and charisma and incredible force-of-personality, and also the ways that Mr. Jobs was (allegedly) often a stone-cold dick to many of the people in his life.  Mr. Fassbender grabs hold of the audience’s attention and never lets go, keeping us hooked into his story even when he portrays Mr. Jobs doing cruel things.  It’s great work.

Kate Winslet plays Joanna Hoffman, Apple and NeXT’s marketing consultant and (as depicted in the film at least), Mr. Jobs’ right-hand-woman.  Ms. Winslet could be easy to overlook in a film like this — although she has a lot of dialogue, her role is far less showy than that of Mr. Fassbender’s Jobs, or the other men who play important supporting characters in the film.  And yet I think she is the glue that holds the whole film together.  I absolutely loved Ms. Winslet in this role.  She is extraordinarily capable with Mr. Sorkin’s dialogue, and she goes toe-to-toe with Mr. Fassbender in scene after scene in the film.  She’s great.

Seth Rogen is hilarious casting as Steve Wozniak — he certainly looks the part — and I loved how Mr. Rogen rose to the challenge of this mostly dramatic performance.  He’s great.  I now desperately want to watch a sequel called Steve Wozniak with Mr. Rogen in the role, telling Mr. Wozniak’s side of the story.

Watching (and listening to) Jeff Daniels’ delivery of Aaron Sorkin’s dialogue was one of the great pleasures of Mr. Sorkin’s otherwise uneven most recent TV show, HBO’s The Newsroom So it was a surprise and a delight to me when Mr. Daniels appeared in this film, once again making delicious music out of Mr. Sorkin’s dialogue.

I will love Michael Stuhlbarg forever after his incredible work in the Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man (if you’ve never seen it, go track it down immediately), and he’s great here as Andy Hertzfeld, a very smart member of the original Macintosh team who, in the film, is much abused by Mr. Jobs.  I think this is the least-developed of the film’s main supporting characters, but Mr. Stuhlbarg still makes a meal out of his every moment on screen.  I could stand to see a whole film about this character, too!!

I should also mention Katherine Waterston for her small role here as Chrisann Brennan, Job’s former girlfriend who asserts that Jobs is the father of her daughter Lisa.  Ms. Waterston grabbed my attention in a big way with her performance in Inherent Vice (and not just because of her jaw-dropping nudity) and, although she has a small and fairly one-dimensional role here in Steve Jobs, I was impressed by the way Ms. Waterston was able to bring some life to this character.

I also have to mention the work of Danny Boyle and cinematographer Alwin Kuchler in choosing to distinguish the three time-periods of the film by shooting in three different film-formats.  The 1984 segment was filmed in 16mm, the 1988 segment was filmed in 35mm, and the 1998 segment was filmed digitally.  I love this device, and the way that the different methods of filming help give each era a distinct feel.  (I will comment, though, that when I saw the film the graininess of the 1984 section was a little distracting to me.  It might have been an issue with the theatre where I saw it, and the way the film was projected.  I guess I won’t be able to be sure until I see the film again on blu-ray.)

A new film written by Aaron Sorkin is always of interest to me.  While I wouldn’t put Steve Jobs at the top of my list of his work, I found it to be a very enjoyable, very interesting film.  It’s one I look forward to revisiting.