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There’s no denying the world-wide influence of Steve Jobs, the once charismatic and often controversial founder and sometimes CEO of Apple, now the largest information technology company in the world. Apple products have brought significant change to how the public consumes information, communicates to each other, and shares their lives. So yes, his story is important.
Director Danny Boyle’s film, Steve Jobs doesn’t try to bring the mythos of the man any closer to reality. While there are some quiet smaller moments that hint to the quaint beginnings of where it all started, Boyle, writer Aaron Sorkin and lead actor Michael Fassbender very much want to keep the legend alive and in so doing, have created a remarkably powerful, emotionally driven, character study that will certainly entertain, though if you’re hoping to learn more about the roots of his life and how he truly came to be the man he was, you might leave a bit dissatisfied. Steve Jobs isn’t pretending to be a biography, and in fact, takes for granted that those watching already know a bit of the famed history of the man.
The film is about three important product launches in the history of Steve Jobs’ career in technology, beginning with the stockholders meeting and reveal of the Macintosh in 1984. This was shortly after the now legendary Super Bowl commercial had aired (once) and set the tech world ablaze with excitement, even though, as it’s mentioned more than once, the product was never shown. We start mere minutes before the audience is to be seated and the demo has crashed and the computer won’t speak ‘Hello’, a condition that Jobs makes terrifyingly clear is one he will not accept. The second launch is for his new start-up computer company NeXT in 1988, a black box shaped system that was created after he was fired (resigned?) from Apple, and we learn that while he spent a tremendous amount of time and money on the shape of the computer, he is ambitious to cater to education despite the extremely high cost, which seems like a problem until he deftly, and privately explains his plan right before he addresses the audience. And lastly, we are backstage witnesses to the first iMac product launch in 1998 when again, he faces setback.
Throughout all of this, we are given many fascinating glimpses into the world of computer design, manufacturing and promotion, with lots of industry lingo. It’s all very impressive and makes us feel appropriately ignorant of the machines and in awe of those that aren’t. But we quickly realize the computers that have come to define Jobs and the people who work for and with him are nothing but the means for bringing them together in this film. This movie is about the relationships in Job’s life and how, while every minutia of detail in the creation and presentation of his computers can be carefully controlled by Jobs, the people who love him can not.
Those people are present at each of the launches, coming and going in well-choreographed entrances and exits that seemingly bear weight on how Jobs will perform at these functions (though we never see an actual presentation). The first is always Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), his head of marketing and a constant companion that is his equal in many ways, and the only person in his employ that speaks back to him. Next is John Scully (Jeff Daniels), the Apple CEO who initially stands with Jobs but then is blamed for firing him. There is Steve Wozniak, a computer engineer who was there in the garage with Jobs in the 1970s, building the first system. Andy Herzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg), a programmer who is certainly incredibly talented but constantly lying on the tracks as Jobs steams through. And lastly, there is Lisa (played by three actresses at different stages of her life), Jobs’ daughter who grows up with a father who questions his paternity for the first five years of her life, and then remains engaged, in his own way, throughout.
Of these roles, Winslet and Rogan come out on top. Winslet, who is near impossible to recognize, gets a few really dramatic moments and it’s surprising how, by the end of the film, we realize how much of her life we have seen as well, and how committed she is to her friend and colleague. She is the one who keeps the plates spinning and there is nothing that distracts her (when Jobs casually asks her, moments before he’s to go on stage, why they’ve never had sex, without skipping a bit, she retorts, ‘Because we aren’t in love‘). Of course, she does have one thing that hurts her most, and what that is moves us as well as Jobs, and is one of the finer moments in the film.
Then there is Rogan who as ‘Woz’ is simply extraordinary, and like fans of Jonah Hill who left Moneyball (Another Sorkin penned script) in shock at his thoughtful performance might do the same in seeing Rogan take his game to the next level. And while there is no denying the powerful ending to his movie, easily the two most important moments come with Rogan facing off against his long-time friend, both impassioned conflicts that are by two distinctly differently men that understand their varied roles helped get them where they are with ‘Woz’ the personable, talented, instrument and Jobs, the self-proclaimed conductor. The two are bound by their history, torn by their present.
Fassbender doesn’t make any Herculean attempts at trying to ‘be’ Jobs, applying only minimal visual trademarks to his performance to lure us more comfortably into the familiar look and stature of the very public figure. He does however, embody the man with great authenticity, carrying us through this movie with tremendous charm and personality. As he is in nearly every single frame, his presence is substantial, a convincing performance that is the anchor for the supporting cast, like a great operating system providing a platform for well-made programs.
The script is typical Sorkin, which is to say it moves fast, is sharp like a razor, and barely takes a breath. It’s impossible to not consider The West Wing in its heyday or especially The Newsroom when Daniels in on screen. The motion of the actors as they communicate with each is very compelling and Boyle’s direction is sublime, though he dabbles a bit in the obvious that gets a little distracting, especially in the moment when Jobs faces off against the Apple Board when the room is so dark it’s lite like a Medieval torture chamber and the huge widows behind are a view of torrents of nighttime rain. But, there are some very creative uses of flashbacks that are so wonderfully integrated into the present, it’s spellbinding and really delivers past narrative in a unique way.
But the best part of the movie is, much like the way Sorkin wrote and portrayed Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network, Steve Jobs is not deified. He is a man with regrets and defects, vulnerable but gifted. It’s refreshing to see the hero of the story, a real person in history, be treated as such and not set so high atop a pedestal, we lose all sense of humanity.
Director(s): Danny Boyle
Actor(s): Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Seth Rogen
Genre: Biography, Drama