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Friday, November 13, 2015

Review: Steve Jobs

Hello Again

By Chris Sabga

Release Date: October 23, 2015 – U.S.
Rating: R
Genre: Biography, Drama
Running Time: 122 minutes
Director: Danny Boyle
Writers: Aaron Sorkin (screenplay), 
Walter Isaacson (book)
Cast: Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, 
Seth Rogen, Jeff Daniels, Michael Stuhlbarg, 
Katherine Waterston, Perla Haney-Jardine, 
Ripley Sobo, Makenzie Moss, Sarah Snook, 
John Ortiz 

"Steve Jobs" is the second movie in two years about the founder of Apple. Add a 600+ page book to the equation (by Walter Isaacson, which this is based on), and it's hard to blame anyone for being sick of Jobs by now. But this is far from a retread of the previous material.

The first film – 2013's "Jobs" – raced through its subject's "insanely great" history. "Steve Jobs" is narrower in focus: it takes place almost entirely during three product launches – the Macintosh in 1984, the NeXT Computer ("the cube") in 1988, and the iMac in 1998 – with a few other short flashbacks as needed.

The big surprise here: While Jobs (Michael Fassbender) may be an asshole, he's portrayed here as a benevolent one capable of recognizing his own flaws and compromising on (some) points. Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), meanwhile, comes across as somewhat of a bitter, petulant, slightly unhinged man-child. It's a dramatic shift from the nice and loveable but kooky guy he's usually portrayed as. Yet, the real Woz has nothing but praise for this movie, which seems strange to me given his less-than-flattering characterization in this version of the story. But, hey, who am I to argue with the creator of the Apple II?

Before each product launch, Jobs interacts with several important figures from his life: former Pepsi CEO John Sculley (Jeff Daniels, superb as always), infamous for "firing" Jobs from his own company; Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg, "Hugo"), the designer in charge of making the Mac say "hello"; and Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston), with whom Steve had a daughter. Chrisann is underwritten though. As justified as her emotions are, the writing or acting (or both) dismisses her as a nagging shrew. But her presence is a simply a means to an end to establish the relationship between Jobs and Lisa (portrayed by three different actresses – Makenzie Moss, Ripley Sobo, and Perla Haney-Jardine – from ages 5 to 19). The struggles between father and daughter – and the irony of a man "abandoned" by his birth parents later doing the same to his own child – end up being one of the major themes of the film.

In the foreground during all of this is Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet). Winslet dominates every scene she's in as Steve's tough-talking, no-nonsense, take-no-shit assistant. It's one of the film's biggest treats to behold. If Fassbender is in contention for an Oscar nomination, Winslet better be right by his side. The best supporting roles make you want to see a movie about them. Just as Tommy Lee Jones accomplished that as Thaddeus Stevens in "Lincoln," so does Winslet as Joanna Hoffman in "Steve Jobs."

It is a glaring fact that Michael Fassbinder doesn't much look like the man he's playing. But after five minutes on-screen, that doesn't really matter. Hair, clothing, and a dash of makeup are more than enough to maintain some semblance of an illusion for the audience. All of that, however, would be for naught without the great writing by Aaron Sorkin and the fantastic acting by Fassbender and his co-stars as they bring those words to life.

For a film that essentially consists of nonstop dialogue and people walking into different rooms, it is subtly stylish. The three time periods are each filmed differently: 1984 is grainy with a dark and drab color scheme, 1988 feels more open with a richer palette but retains a traditional film look, and 2008 is shot digitally and looks clear and bright. There are also other visual flourishes, such as a nighttime board meeting with rain pouring behind a glass window – a dazzling backdrop.

One of the best aspects of Sorkin's script: Something from 1984 may affect what happens in 1998. There are instances of that all over "Steve Jobs." One example: Lisa's Sony Walkman (a music tape player, for those of you too young to remember them) portends the coming of the iPod.

Of course, not everything really happened as depicted in "Steve Jobs." For one thing, people generally don't speak like great screenwriters and argue using only catchy soundbites and quips. Also, I don't think anyone is really expected to believe that all of the central figures in Steve Jobs's life would show up and confront him mere minutes before an important press conference – three times! If that actually happened, it would be a sign of collective mental illness. After all, don't these people have anything better to do? Obviously, it's a purposeful plot device designed to tell the story a specific way – and it works on that level. In Sorkin's own words, "this a painting and not a photograph."

It is tempting to analyze and contrast "Steve Jobs" with the earlier "Jobs," but it really is like comparing – forgive me – apples and oranges. Ashton Kutcher did an incredible job in 2013, but Michael Fassbender puts his own unique stamp on this version. Ditto for Josh Gad and Seth Rogen, respectively, as Woz. "Jobs" tells a more complete story, but the writing in "Steve Jobs" is superior. Both films have a reason to exist, and that's something I wasn't expecting.

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