Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Oct 09, 2015 11:13 am 
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Jobs in pieces: a bold structure, but not the acid bath one had hoped for

Sorkin’s script for Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs organizes all the action around three moments in the Apple mastermind's life. They are semi-realtime forty-minute segments before three of those big public presentations of products that were the arena in which Jobs honed his fame and, not always successfully, promoted products. They're at the Cupertino performing arts center, before the introduction of the Macintosh computer in 1984; at the San Francisco opera house before the introduction of the non-Apple NeXT black cube when Jobs had been expelled from Apple; and at Davies Symphony Hall in 1998 just before the launch of the iMac. Two non-successes, then the beginning of the Jobs triumphs when he returned to the company. Nothing is included about the later, greater triumphs or the the pancreatic cancer that took Jobs away at the height of his fame in his fifties.

Those expecting Sorkin's script to be a worthy followup to the dazzling displays of verbal sparring he's produced elsewhere, notably in David Fincher’s The Social Network, will be a bit disappointed -- though Jobs makes just as steely, mean, and brilliant a subject as Mark Zuckerberg, if not more so. Do Sorkin, Boyle, and the lead Michael Fassbender really give Jobs the "brilliant, maddening, ingeniously designed and monstrously self-aggrandizing movie he deserves," as Justin Chang wrote in Variety at the film's Telluride debut? That's nice rhetoric from Chang, but not quite lived up to.

We do get ample illustration of Jobs’ meanness toward his chief working partner and the original Apple presiding genius, Steve Wozniak (a warm and appealing Seth Rogan) and see how Jobs mistreated his ex-girlfriend Chrisann (a mousy Katherine Waterston) and long unacknowledged daughter, Lisa (played by two actresses, Mackenzie Moss and Perla Haney-Jardine). But the film chooses to end on an up note — a reconciliation between Jobs and his now nineteen-year-old daughter. It’s an awfully positive way to conclude the portrait of a cruel egomaniac. Oddly, it's the heartfelt emotional outbursts that dominate in Steve Jobs over the withering, mean putdowns.

True, Sorkin does (to quote Chang again) "blow away traditional storytelling conventions" (thankfully, for those of us suffering from advanced biopic fatigue) in the highly schematic way he presents the man, his talents, and his failures as a human. The screenplay is broken down into a stark, highly theatrical (and Birdman- like) framework that mixes the public and private personas, the business “genius” and the deeply flawed and chilly private person. Sorkin has brilliantly composed the backstage interactions, often involving his trademark walk-and-talk dialogues — so as to pack in a great deal of Jobs and Apple history in highly dramatic form. This is Sorkin’s forte: his dialogue is lively, idiomatic, idiosyncratic, but never fails in its aim to function as detailed exposition.

The way Jobs orders people around in the first segment amply shows off his imperiousness, and the fact that he was introducing the NeXT black Cube when it was not even yet functional shows his typical emphasis on façade over function. I was pleasantly surprised that Seth Rogan doesn't make his performance as Wozniak too jokey or cuddly. Rogen gets the most emotionally solid speeches, particularly one in which he points out Jobs could not even write code. How do you show an absent father? Apparently in enacrting the rare times when he is present, because we see Jobs trying to show an interest in Lisa, saving her drawing on the Macintosh when she was six, and finally coming close to a hug, promising that he will certainly pay her Harvard tuition.

As John Scully, the former Pepsi honcho who was Apple CEO and got pushed out later, Jeff Daniels may be playing a role written expressly for him (he dominated the recent Sorkin TV series “The Newsroom”), and he arguably makes a warmer, more interesting character than the dull real-life Scully. It’s a somewhat odd choice to cut off each segment before Jobs’ onstage launch appearances, since those were the iconic Steve Jobs moments.

Things get pretty technical at times in the arguments about operating systems and computer adaptability: it’s likely older audience members may be lost at such times; but then, The Social Network didn't appeal to everybody either.

Fassbender, a brilliant actor, ably dominates the proceedings, his lack of resemblance to the real Jobs soon forgotten; but he needs a constant foil, and that is provided in each segment by Kate Winslet (doing an understated Eastern European accent) as Jobs’ continual sidekick and head of marketing Joanna Hoffman. Almost unrecognizable, Winslet is impressively fluid.

Chang is not wrong when he speaks of this film as "Straining like mad to be the Citizen Kane (or at least the Birdman) of larger-than-life techno-prophet biopics." There are touches of Kane and of Birdman; but "straining" is the operative word. True, this is a more stylish and interesting movie than Joshua Michael Stern's conventional biopic Jobs, starring Ashton Kutcher — though that film shows more vividly how nasty Jobs could be to Apple staff. A perusal of Jobs, Alex Gibney’s recent documentary Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine, and the Walter Isaacson biography will show you that, despite the somewhat chaotic collection of information Sorkin weaves into his script (and Boyle over-kinetically directs), a lot of the story is left out here. Most of all, after The Social Network -- and all the damning things I've recently learned about the man-- I was disappointed that Steve Jobs was not more of a portrait dipped in acid.

Previous Danny Boyle films include Shallow Grave, Trainspotting, The Beach, 28 Days Later, Sunshine, Slumdog Millionaire, and 127 hours. Steve Jobs includes Michael Stuhlbarg as Andy Hertzfeld. Writer Aaron Sorkin scripted the TV shows "The West Wing" and "The Newsroom" and the films A Few Good Men, The American President, Charlie Wilson's War, The Social Network, and Moneyball. Steve Jobs is based on the official biography by Walter Isaacson which presents negative aspects of the man without ever ceasing to assume him to be a god of modern times. Sorkin selects for some of the key negative aspects, but with his kind ending, still winds up, as A.O. Scott put it in his NY Times review, "burnishing the reputation" of the man. When will we get the truly clear-eyed portrait that will show Mr. Jobs was not only not a nice man, but also not a god, even of cyberworld? But as long as the films are based on Isaacson's official biography, that's not going to happen.

Steve Jobs., 122 mins., debuted at Telluride; also at the London and New York Festivals. Reviewed as part of the New York Film Festival, where it was presented as the centerpiece film. Limited US theatrical release began 9 Oct. 2015.

Watch the NYFF post-screening press conference here.

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