Monday, October 19, 2015

Sight, Sound & Structure - Steve Jobs, Reviewed

Quick! Here's a 656 page book about Apple mogul Steve Jobs written by Walter Isaacson, which covers his being adopted, his complex and often contested relationship with his daughter, as well as his enormous contributions to the world of technology including (but not limited to) one of the first computers designed for home and not business use, the first personal computer with a mouse, the the iMac, iPod and iPhone. A genius with products who was almost as good at alienating those closest to him. Got it?
Great! Now, can you please turn that all of that into a movie with a two-hour run time?
Oh, and don't forget the business side of things! How he started Apple computers with his best mate Steve Wozniak, left Apple after clashing with board chair John Scully, but returned later on to rescue the company from insolvency and turn it into a technology juggernaut. Oh, and he also was mostly responsible for starting Pixar, but maybe let's not mention another movie studio, okay?

Aaron Sorkin, who was given a remit similar to what you just read for the movie Steve Jobs, directed by Danny Boyle, has a fair amount of detractors. They say he writes stuff to make people feel smarter than they are, with impossibly clever and often preachy dialogue all designed to be shot while people walk through hallways and corridors, as they did in The West Wing.

If you ask me what I think about Aaron Sorkin, I will tell you that The West Wing is one of the three best shows ever to air on television, and anybody who can make a movie about a website and two lawsuits into a compelling drama (as he did with The Social Network) can write anything he damn well wants, and I will want to take a look at it.

If you have read anything about Steve Jobs (and I have not read Isaacson's book), you have probably come away with a picture of an intelligent, insightful but often adversarial man whose confidence and impatience bordered on megalomania. Isaacson's book bears much of this out, and Sorkin's screenplay presents a man obsessed with control and possessed by a need to change the way people use technology.

It is appropriate that Steve Jobs the movie is a bit like Steve Jobs the man: highly structured and with a narrative that makes the most sense in retrospect.  Sorkin's screen play is set moments before three important product launches that Jobs is presenting: the Macintosh computer in 1984, the NeXT computer in 1988 and the iMac in 1999.

Each premiere features Michael Fassbender depicting a man whose control issues have pushed those around him to greater heights while simultaneously distancing him from those who should be closest to him, like Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), his marketing head and aide de camp Joanna Hoffman (Cate Winslet), and his estranged daughter Lisa (three amazing actresses).

Jobs life seemed to be inherently dramatic, so each presentation has some wrinkle in the present time, such as a glitching demo, as well as an unresolved issue from the past, like Wozniak's demand of public acknowledgment of the work done on previous computers, or John Scully asking why everyone thinks he fired Steve Jobs.

Some of these ghosts of the technocrat's past are depicted in flashbacks; scenes in the garage where Apple Computers was born, the boardroom where he and Apple parted ways, or the restaurant where he convinced Scully to leave Pepsi for Apple, but many more of them are simply imparted by the actors.

Fassbender does his typically brilliant job of immersing himself in the role. There is not a trace of Magneto, his accent is effortlessly and almost eerily American, and Sorkin's fast paced, quip-laden dialogue bubbles out of his mouth like spring water over a rocky streambed. This guy is one of my favourite actors, and he gives a bravura and unblinking performance of an incredibly gifted yet amazingly flawed individual, almost daring you to root for him, and yet you feel compelled to do exactly that.

Given Sorkin's affinity with Carol Lombard-style newspaper comedies of the 1930s, you would expect Jobs' girl Friday to be a plum role, and it is. Cate Winslet affects only the mildest of accents and portrays an intelligent woman striving to balance her role as an employee with her responsibilities to help Jobs see the human elements of his life that he is either incapable of or unwilling to recognize. Winslet's characterization of Hoffman doesn't have an arc so much as it has a tipping point, and she plays it with marvelous restraint for the majority of the picture.

The real shock to me, though, is Seth Rogen, a sharp guy who has struck comedy gold playing goofy losers. He studied tapes of Steve Wozniak giving tours of the Apple facility in Cupertino and met with the man himself, imbuing his portrayal with compassion, but balanced precariously on a foundation of pride and indignation. At one point, he declaims, "I'm tired of being treated like Ringo when I know I'm John," and you know this is coming from more than just a sense of pride, its sourcewaters are a place of confusion and perceived injustice. He gets a couple of brilliant pieces with Fassbender that are almost painful to watch, as Wozniak's good-natured humanity breaks upon the shore of Jobs unflinching pragmatism, and I wouldn't even be surprised to see Rogen get a Best Supporting Oscar nod for his work here, as brief as it is.

The last bit of acting I want to point out is Jeff Daniels, who, after his turn on Sorkin's HBO series The Newsroom, feels like he was created primarily to serve as a vessel through which flows awesome Sorkinese dialogue. As board chair John Scully, he has the most multi-faceted role, having to interact with the title character as his mentor, father figure, confidante, adversary, and eventually rival, and does a wonderful job with it, mixing admiration with exasperation, wisdom with anger. His scenes with Fassbender are simply electrifying.

Visually, Steve Jobs doesn't really feel like a Danny Boyle movie until the third act.  Unbeknownst to me, they shot each act differently, moving from 16mm stock to 35mm and finally to digital, representing the technological shifts inherent to each epoch of Jobs' life. The first two acts, brilliantly performed, are shot very traditionally, with little of the flair and creativity we have come to expect from the director of Slumdog Millionaire or, for that matter, the opening ceremonies of the London Olympics.

In the third act, it all begins to coalesce, as Jobs is haunted by flashbacks to previous scenes, and a story he tells gets depicted on a wall behind him that runs out to the infinity point of the shot. And there is no denying that he can wring a ton emotion from his scenes, especially the final confrontation with Wozniak in the auditorium prior to the iMac launch, with cameras moving from wide to close and incorporating cut aways to three other characters and a number of extras portraying awkward Apple staff who wish they were anywhere else.

The biggest surprise of all though, is just how emotionally affecting the story is.  Jobs has a reputation for being intellectually brilliant but emotionally underdeveloped almost to the point of disability, and this comes across multiple times in the film, as unflinchingly as Fassbender's performance. As a father, watching him struggle to define the relationship with his daughter Lisa is frustrating and hurtful to bear witness to at times, especially in his interaction with her mother and high-school sweetheart, Chrisann (Katherine Waterston). Likewise, when Jeff Daniels as John Scully says he was warned against becoming Jobs' father figure, the pathos feels both prescient and significant.

I can't tell you how truthful or accurate this movie is; while I respect the accomplishments of Steve Jobs as an innovator, frankly, his failings as a human keep me from being either a fan or an apologist for him. But I can tell you that Danny Boyle and Aaron Sorkin have made a movie depicting one man's life during a time of tremendous transition in the way computers interact with everyday people, a transition that Steve Jobs had as much to do with as maybe any other single individual.

Steve Jobs's story makes for an intriguing and compelling couple of hours in the cinema.  Not just for computer geeks or students of business, it is a complex story about a complicated man, told in a surprisingly straightforward and emotionally engaging manner,  and which I can recommend to just about anyone.

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