Sunday, October 25, 2015

Ghosts of Apple's Past: "Steve Jobs" audacious, sharp, superbly acted, but also exhausting



Steve Jobs (2015) 
122 min., rated R.

Commendably, director Danny Boyle's "Steve Jobs" reminds more of Charles Dickens' classic "A Christmas Carol" married with Alejandro González Iñárritu's "Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)" than any cradle-to-grave biopic. Breaking up the monotony of the conventional rise-and-fall bullet points by encapsulating the Apple co-founder's life and career as a three-act backstage drama, the film is a rigorous whirlwind of movement and rat-a-tat dialogue. In this case, screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (2011's "Moneyball"), adapting Walter Isaacson's biographical book, finds the essence of Steve Jobs by splitting his story structure into three crucial moments, while making Jobs' tempestuous relationship with his daughter the emotional crux of the story after initially seeming to have a hole where its heart should be. The film might not fill in all the blanks and check all the facts as Alex Gibney's recent documentary "Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine" did, but it is an entirely different beast and works as an audacious companion piece.

Steve Jobs (Michael Fassbender) was intelligent, meticulous, temperamental, and cursed with a God complex. That much has to be true. Minutes before his first product launch for the Macintosh computer in 1984, he micromanages backstage and tears into computer engineer Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg) because the voice demo for the Mac won't say, "Hello," thanks to a glitch in the system. He was acrimonious and insubordinate, but always standing by his side is his left and right hand, long-suffering marketing director Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), even when problems of the personal variety could plague his head space before the launch. Jobs denied the paternity of his 5-year-old daughter, Lisa (Makenzie Moss), in a Time Magazine article, as well as financial support for ex-girlfriend Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston), the mother of his child who's living on welfare. In 1988, after being ousted from Apple, Jobs is about to launch the NeXT Cube but finds time to separately confront his mentor, Apple CEO John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), who's frustrated from Jobs failing to give him credit or acknowledge the Apple II team. Finally, in 1988, before presenting the iMac, Jobs discovers the error of his ways from Wozniak and his now-19-year-old daughter (Perla Haney-Jardine). To distill Jobs' character, Wozniak hits the nail on the head with a sharp line: "It's not binary. You can be decent and gifted at the same time."

More of a warts-and-all snapshot than a complete portrait of its human subject, "Steve Jobs" isn't always insightful in giving us a full understanding of Jobs, but that never seems to be its intention. What it is, however, is admirable as a precisely made, theatrically talky, propulsively paced, and superbly acted drama. How accurate any of it is really doesn't matter, as long as the film itself is engagingly applied. The electric direction by Danny Boyle (2013's "Trance") is given a jolt by Aaron Sorkin's densely written screenplay, where (like everything Sorkin pens) every person is always sharp-witted and hyper-verbal with a snappy retort and is able to frantically walk and talk with a ping-pong rhythm. As long as it's consistent, which it is, the style works. Also, the three acts are keenly distinguished by Alwin H. Küchler's cinematography and aesthetically appropriate film stocks for the given computer age (grainy 16mm for 1984, polished 35mm for 1988, and super-clean digital for 1998) and composer Daniel Pemberton's pulsating score varies from synthesizer to symphonic opera to bell tones with the utilization of Apple products.

Melting as one into the role of Steve Jobs, Michael Fassbender is mesmeric as he navigates so many layers of a complicated non-fiction figure. He may even look less like the real Jobs than Ashton Kutcher did in 2013's "Jobs," at least until he suits up in a black turtleneck, but resemblance isn't everything. Rather than just impersonating him, Fassbender captures the essence of Jobs' ego, selfishness, and brilliance. As Joanna Hoffman, Jobs' marketing chief/"workplace wife"/voice of reason, the beyond-reproach Kate Winslet is a powerhouse (though, and it's a minor issue, was her Polish-Armenian accent always there or just subtle?) and sells all of her juicy, often moving confrontations. As Jobs' friend and colleague Steve Wozniak, who still can't deny the genius' unflattering reputation, Seth Rogen is a greatly sympathetic counterpoint. Jeff Daniels is also strong, having the rhythm of Sorkin's dialogue down pat from acting in three seasons of the Sorkin-penned show "The Newsroom" on HBO, here playing former Apple CEO John Sculley. All three actresses playing Jobs' daughter Lisa at ages 5, 9, and 19 are also good at injecting emotion and truth at every moment (Makenzie Moss, Ripley Sobo, and Perla Haney-Jardine, respectively).

When the words crackle with wit and volatility, the pace doesn't relent, and the top-drawer actors get to show that they're more than up to the task in bringing Aaron Sorkin's script out of the theater and on to the screen, "Steve Jobs" exhilarates and exhausts. As very good as it is, the film, however, strikes one contrived note in the end to atone Jobs, who admits he is "poorly made," and his relationship with 19-year-old Lisa (Perla Haney-Jardine), who satisfyingly gives it to her father in verbally Sorkin-y fashion. Where this conversation ends, though, also happens to shoehorn in the germination of the iPod. Before then, "Steve Jobs," like its subject, doesn't care if it's liked or not. Like Sorkin's script for 2010's "The Social Network," he once again captures the arrogance of a smart, successful creator. How ironic, then, that both Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs were (or at least portrayed as) uncivil, socially difficult men who revolutionized human communication. 

Grade: B +

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