May 2024

Steve Jobs (2015)

jobsDIRECTOR: Danny Boyle

CAST: Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Seth Rogen, Jeff Daniels, Michael Stuhlbarg, Katherine Waterston, Makenzie Moss, Ripley Sobo, Perla Haney-Jardine, John Ortiz


Steve Jobs is a bit to the late Apple Inc. founder and CEO as The Social Network (directed by David Fincher and like this written by Aaron Sorkin) was to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, and while the laurels heaped on Danny Boyle’s character study hasn’t quite equaled that showered upon Fincher’s, one trait they share is that, just as The Social Network was able to shape such a seemingly dry and mundane topic as the founding of Facebook into a compelling character-driven drama, Steve Jobs does not require one to be an Apple aficionado or a particular fan of the real Steve Jobs to find this interesting viewing.  As brought to the screen by Danny Boyle and Aaron Sorkin, Steve Jobs is not a dry docudrama, but a near Shakespearean morality play that leads us to reflect on the gift/curse of genius, the costs of limitless ambition, and the ways in which being a great mind does not necessarily equate being a great person.

Like a stage play, Steve Jobs is neatly delineated into three acts.  It’s easy to see how this could have been performed on the stage, and in fact that’s often how it feels, relying on few sets and driven by character interplay and rhythmic dialogue.  Act One is in 1984, as up-and-coming computer company Apple Inc’s founder and CEO Steve Jobs (Michael Fassbender) is unveiling the Macintosh computer in front of a packed theater house filled to the brim with an enthralled audience.  Jobs is a genius with the arrogance to match his brilliance, a single-minded perfectionist and control freak and a temperamental taskmaster who spends the last few minutes before the curtain rises berating his beleaguered staff over last-minute technical glitches, while his long-suffering, loyal marketing director Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet) struggles to rein him in.  Infuriated at the demo computer’s vocal greeting of “hello” not working, he threatens to publicly humiliate his underling Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg), refuses the pleading of his old buddy Steve “Woz” Wozniak (Seth Rogen) to publicly acknowledge the efforts of the Apple 2 team, and tries to avoid a meeting with his ex-girlfriend Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston), who has brought along five-year-old Lisa (Makenzie Moss).  Jobs refuses to acknowledge Lisa is his daughter, but forms a tentative bond with the child.  Act 2 takes us to another product launch, 1988’s NeXt Cube.  In the meantime, after the failure of the Macintosh, Jobs has been forced out of his own company in a board uprising orchestrated by his trusted confidant John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), and is plotting revenge, founding a rival company but deliberately dragging his feet on the NeXt Cube while waiting to find out what technology Apple needs, scheming to force them to buy the technology from him and maneuvering himself back into his old company as part of the package.  Meanwhile, he is confronted again by his ex Chrisann, but is idolized by the nine-year-old Lisa (Ripley Sobo).  By Act 3 in 1998, having wrested back control of Apple, Jobs has mellowed with age (to a point), becoming more of a team player and a more easygoing boss to his underlings, but clashes again with his old buddy Wozniak, who is still stewing over Jobs denying him what he feels is due credit for his and the Apple 2 team’s role in bringing him his successes, and has an uneasy encounter with the nineteen-year-old Lisa (Perla Haney-Jardine), who no longer looks at her father with rose-colored glasses.

For director Danny Boyle, this is the latest in an eclectic filmography that includes everything from the British black comedy crime film Trainspotting to the zombie apocalypse thriller 28 Days Later to the sci-fi flick Sunshine (among others).  With Steve Jobs, Boyle and writer Aaron Sorkin have not crafted a conventional biopic.  Instead, we drop in on the title character in three episodes of his life, all centered around new product launches.  It plays fast and loose with the facts in some respects; for example, Steve Wozniak and John Sculley did not attend all three launch parties in 1984, 1988, and 1998 as the film portrays, but the film’s structure is that of a morality play rather than a docudrama strictly rooted in reality, with Jobs visited on the eve of each launch by old friends, old enemies, and those somewhere in between, like Scrooge haunted by the ghosts of Christmas past.   Likewise, the conversation between Jobs and Sculley about adoption that runs throughout the movie, picking up at each launch where it left off at the last one, is not meant to be taken strictly literally, but aimed at illuminating some emotional truth of Jobs’ character (he was given up by his biological parents, and later given back to foster care by his first adoptive family, which the script suggests had an influence on his adult personality, leaving him with an obsessive complex about always being in control).  Like a stage production, Steve Jobs relies heavily on acting, pacing, and dialogue.  Sorkin’s dialogue crackles, and in the hands of a high-caliber cast, is tossed sharply back-and-forth with verve and passion.  Despite its outwardly spare  format, it’s easy to see what would attract actors to a project like this, where Kate Winslet, Jeff Daniels, Seth Rogen, Katherine Waterston, and others all get to take their turns playing off of Michael Fassbender in heated one-on-one confrontations that give both sparring partners plenty of juicy lines to chew on.  These uneasy verbal battles always taking place while the clock is ticking down on the raising of the curtain and a harried Jobs tries to settle arguments while preparing to take the stage, gives Steve Jobs a perpetual sense of urgency, accentuated by Danny Boyle’s use of long, swooping takes, the camera fluidly following characters as they stalk down corridors and hallways.  The intense acting, rat-a-tat-tat pace, and restless camera work brings a sense of energy and tension to what could have easily come across as dry and mundane.  Also, while the script requires Michael Fassbender and others to do their share of rapid-fire rattling off technical jargon, the central emphasis is on interpersonal relationships more than the details of Jobs’ running of Apple Inc., lending more drama and emotional heft than what might have been if the emphasis was more on the computers and less on the volatile and complicated man behind them.

When it comes to its title character, like The Social Network, this is very much a warts-and-all portrait.  Even now, four years after Jobs’ death from cancer in 2011, its portrayal drew fire from both his replacement as Apple CEO, Tim Cook, and from Jobs’ fan following.  Using Steve Wozniak as the primary mouthpiece for this allegation, the movie voices an accusation previously leveled at the real Jobs, that while his genius as an innovator and a man of big ideas is seldom questioned, his icon status was partially orchestrated by Jobs himself, manipulating the media and standing on the shoulders of unacknowledged subordinates to portray himself as the sole mastermind behind all of Apple’s innovations.  “You don’t write code, you’re not an engineer, you’ve never put a hammer to a nail in your life, so why do I keep reading that Steve Jobs is a genius?” Wozniak accuses at one point.  “A musician plays his instrument, I play the orchestra”, Jobs snaps back.  The movie does not shy away from showing its subject in harsh light, such as when we learn his ex-girlfriend and unacknowledged daughter are living on welfare while Jobs is worth well over $400 million (he does ultimately increase his paltry child support payments, buy them a large new house, and pay for Lisa’s tuition to Harvard, but it takes a lot of browbeating to get him there).  At the same time, he forms a tentative connection with Lisa even as he refuses to admit his paternity, but the girl who idolizes him as a child views him in a far more critical—and probably more accurate—light as a young adult.  Paradoxically, Jobs’ complex and conflicted relationship with Lisa, as it evolves over the years, provides both his most unsympathetic and his most human moments in the movie.  The movie draws a possibly overly simplistic thesis of Jobs’ control freak personality being influenced by his own background as an adopted child whose biological parents gave him up, and it’s clear that in his own way, on some level, he cares for Lisa, but it takes him over a decade to take more than a reluctant, half-hearted step toward showing it.

jobs2Michael Fassbender’s casting was met with some controversy on the basis that he doesn’t look “enough” like the real Steve Jobs, and apart from donning Jobs’ glasses and trademark wardrobe of black turtleneck, blue jeans, and sneakers in the later scenes, the filmmakers don’t do much to bridge the gap (indicating that physical resemblance was not a high priority, such physically dissimilar actors as Leonardo DiCaprio and Christian Bale were previously in the running before Fassbender was cast).  In fact, Ashton Kutcher in the poorly-received 2013 biopic Jobs bore a striking resemblance to a young Jobs, but it didn’t matter, just as it doesn’t matter here that Fassbender doesn’t overly resemble him.  While Kutcher may happen to look like a young Jobs, Fassbender is a better actor and breathes life into him in a way that Kutcher was unable to do.  Fassbender’s Jobs is a volatile, charismatic maestro, an intensely driven man of single-minded purpose who presides over dramatic unveilings of new cutting-edge technological gadgets in front of adoring massive audiences like a rock star, elevating himself to a celebrity and a cultural icon like few CEOs have ever achieved (or even aspired toward).  But as brilliant as Jobs is with technology, innovation, and media, that’s how bad he is with people, and Fassbender plays his abrasive behavior as a combination of callousness and obliviousness to the way he hurts those around him.  At the same time, while the movie does not shy away from showing Jobs’ negative qualities (and there are many), nor does it vilify him.  As bad as Jobs’ behavior can be at times, Fassbender plays him with a measure of humanity.

This is Fassbender’s show first and foremost, but he gets to play off of a solid supporting cast.  Kate Winslet, sporting a Polish accent and at times almost unrecognizable with glasses, wardrobe, and hairstyle that makes her look frumpy and nerdy, holds her own opposite Fassbender as the biggest constant throughout the years, his long-suffering but ever-faithful marketing director, confidant, and right hand woman Joanna, who accepts him as he is (though not without misgivings), does her best to keep him under control, and sometimes acts as his conscience urging him to make things right with his daughter.  Jeff Daniels, best-known for laidback comedic roles, has another straight role as a bottom line-minded bureaucrat that bears a passing resemblance to the one he played earlier this month in The Martian.  His surprisingly forceful performance during a heated confrontation with Fassbender halfway through is one of the best-acted scenes in the movie, and reminds us that two forceful actors having a purely verbal throwdown can be more riveting than a generic action scene.  Even Seth Rogen, in probably the most serious role he’s ever played, is credible as Jobs’ old buddy Wozniak, with whom Jobs created the fledgling Apple in Jobs’ garage in their college days, and has grown bitter and resentful of feeling like he’s never been given due credit.  Michael Stuhlbarg (as Jobs’ harried underling Andy Hertzfeld) and Katherine Waterston (as his ex-girlfriend and mother of his daughter) both get juicy confrontations with Fassbender, and there is a small role for John Ortiz as a reporter who hounds Jobs at each launch event over the years.  Lisa is played as a five-year-old by Makenzie Moss, as a nine-year-old by Ripley Sobo, and as a nineteen-year-old by Perla Haney-Jardine, all of whom are equally convincing.

As idolized as Jobs may have been by his legion of followers, a movie about the late Apple founder and CEO is not a premise to draw blockbuster mainstream crowds (and its often unflattering portrayal likely turned off even Jobs’ fanbase).  In fact, Steve Jobs flopped badly at the box office, despite receiving its share of critical praise and Oscar buzz for Fassbender, who may find himself among the upcoming crop of Oscar nominees (he was previously nominated for Best Supporting Actor as an abusive plantation owner in 2013’s 12 Years a Slave).  The film is not perfect.  The three acts all centered around the last-minute backstage goings-on at a product launch party makes the series of confrontations start to feel a little repetitive after a while.  While the final onscreen encounter between Jobs and the grown Lisa has enough poignancy to finish the film strong, the final scene ends abruptly.  But Steve Jobs‘ smoothly assured direction, crackling dialogue, and strong cast combines to turn what could have been a dull subject (at least as the star of a movie) into an engaging and compelling character study.  One need not be a particular Steve Jobs fan, merely a fan of slickly crafted cinema and powerful acting, to appreciate Steve Jobs.

* * *