November 06, 2015

Steve Jobs

Maybe there’s something vain about making three Steve Jobs movies in two years. In fact, this over-saturation is in keeping with the man himself. According to the new film, Steve Jobs, directed by Danny Boyle, the pugnacious CEO of Apple Computers esteemed himself higher than anyone else. When we meet him in 1984, he’s about to unveil his latest gadget: the Mackintosh computer. In 1984, Apple products looked like every other clunky, ugly device (vaguely futuristic in the way of 2001: A Space Odyssey), and this may be the filmmakers’ greatest joke on a company known for its beautiful electronics. Sure, they’re beautiful now. But Steve Jobs never makes it past 1998, and the original iMac is so ugly that Lisa Jobs (Steve’s daughter) quips, “It looks like Judy Jetson’s EasyBake Oven.”

If we have to sit through another movie about this arrogant bastard—whose company created a lot of amazing devices that I love—at least we get a somewhat unconventional movie, with some truly good performances. Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin structures the film like a three-act play, not a traditional biopic. Every time I sit down in front of one of those biographical dramas—even a good one—a little part of me dies of boredom. I went in expecting that same tired formula: Steve Jobs the kid who couldn’t relate to the other, normal children, Steve Jobs the kid who couldn’t resist taking things apart and putting them back together, Steve Jobs the smartest, ballsiest guy in the room. Then we would eventually get to Jobs's fall from grace and resurrection, the most interesting parts of his career. The structure frees director Danny Boyle, too. He doesn't have to honor the constraints of a traditional bio. What we have here is a stripped down drama that puts its actors under the microscope to see what they can do. It's immensely entertaining. 

Aaron Sorkin treats us to a highly concentrated airing of grievances, where we learn how justified was our disdain for Steve Jobs (but please, take more of my money!), but where we also learn that Steve Jobs was a human being. Michael Fassbender, the automaton of Great Acting, turns in a surprisingly lively and funny performance as the Master himself. Fassbender doesn’t chew up the scenery; He approaches this character as a flawed human being, and he controls our need to hate him with precision. By the end, that hatred has simmered to mild dislike with a touch of fondness.

Like The Social Network, Steve Jobs has a weight to it that feels slightly out of proportion with its subject matter. I think that’s because we still don’t fully understand how radically these technological gurus have reshaped our culture. And, perhaps, these two men in particular won’t be the ones we remember one hundred years from now. (It seems especially likely with Zuckerburg, as teenagers increasingly abandon the Facebook ship for other hipper social media sites.) But these movies put their fingers on the culture in an interesting and bold way: They force us to confront the reality that we’ve given our lives over to companies run by men who aren’t always very good human beings. And yet, these men are more human—not less—by the end.

Kate Winslet, who plays Steve Jobs’s right hand, Joanna Hoffman, gives an equally strong performance. Hoffman seems always trying to save Jobs from himself. In the many instances when Jobs deliberately shatters the relationship between himself and any number of his coterie, it’s Joanna who’s desperately picking up the pieces, who’s appealing to a version of Steve Jobs that she loves and respects. It’s through her that we feel any connection to Jobs at all. Winslet’s best accomplishment in this film is that she makes Joanna strong and appealing, not weak and slovenly. You feel that she could walk away at any moment, but chooses loyalty.

The electric force of the drama in this movie is reason enough to see it. I think that’s why Sorkin opted not to give us the grand sweep of this man’s life. A grand narrative would have deified him and taken all the excitement out of the story. This movie shows Steve Jobs—as far as I can tell—as he was: arrogant, myopic, cowardly, brazen, sharp, funny, and flawed. 

With Seth Rogen (as Steve Wozniak, Jobs’s partner and the man who did much of the brain-work of Apple), Jeff Daniels, Katherine Waterston (as Steve’s troubled girlfriend), Michael Stuhlberg, and playing Lisa Jobs at different ages, Perla Haney-Jardine, Ripley Sobo, and Mackenzie Moss. 

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