Steve Jobs is Danny Boyle’s charged, searing glimpse into the “Wizard of Oz” tech promoter’s discrete life behind the scenes. Set during three seminal product launches (the 1984 Mac, the 1988 Cube and the 1998 iMac), the filmmakers pierce the curtain (and Jobs’ inviolate image) to establish the drama as Jobs is poised on the brink of greatness in the moments before stepping onstage to present his latest anointed, magical toy to the worshiping congregants: children on Christmas Eve awaiting for Santa to deliver their dreams.
Starring Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Seth Rogan and Jeff Daniels, Steve Jobs is a film in kinetic, hyper-drive. The filmmakers offer controversial views of iconic figure Jobs, who reconfigured the atoms of our lives with personal computers, and set us on a historical course from which there is no turning back. Considering that controversy heightens promotional value, this is a good thing, not only for the film Steve Jobs, but for Apple Inc., which still appears by Wall Street standards to be doing no wrong.
The extent to which Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire), and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network), took license with their portrayal of Steve Jobs is moot because relatives close to Jobs were invited into the film’s development, but declined. And Sorkin based his screenplay on Walter Isaacson’s official biography of Steve Jobs; Isaacson had Jobs’ imprimatur.
Boyle and Sorkin sifted through the huge amounts of material in Isaacson’s work, taking into consideration what has been written and shown over the years in articles, plays and biopics about this “Star Ship Commander” digital age revolutionary. The script is clever and nothing short of astonishing. Filmmakers culled the material, selected wisely and shaped it brilliantly into a unique, three-part, tensely wrought, roller-coaster story arc. In subterranean fashion they added their sage perspectives along the way.
How do you present on film a legendary figure who propelled himself beyond truth, as Jobs did as branding promoter and which Apple, Inc., continues to do? Of a mythic persona you suggest and intimate: flavors, sweet and pungent aromatic colors, discrete attitudes, enigmatic tones, foibles, graces, genius traits and malevolent indulgences. You guide your viewers to see “through a glass darkly” and peer through shadows to reflect upon what seems to be wrought in uncertain seasons of the icon’s life.
But the myth is inscrutable; Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle rules. The truth of a human life boils down to the stuff of faith: the faith of the fans, the shareholders, the naysayers, the competition, the company CEO and its board, Jobs’ colleagues, Jobs’ former girlfriend, Jobs’ daughter.
This a phenomenal film, for in one way or another, Boyle and Sorkin touch upon the faith of each of these and focus with the particulars on the main players Jobs dealt with at the three periods in his life the story arc examines. On one hand it is about the faith that Jobs has in himself to be stalwart during difficulties when all around him are losing their nerve. And it is also about the faith that co-workers and friends have to challenge his ability to grow and change for the better though he appears to be recalcitrant and emotionally obtuse. At heart, Boyle’s and Sorkin’s expose is a thought-provoking and indelible fracturing of Jobs’ opaque genius upon which they attempt to shine the light of understanding and empathy. What they present offers tragic-comic dimensions; they unveil hubris as the flaw which may or may not have effected his “downfall” in the second chapter of their three-part study of a Jobs who is pressure-cooked by his own greatness.
The film’s strengths are built around this mind-bending principle of belief in himself and his divine mission, which Jobs (Michael Fassbender is incredible) continually demonstrates in his interactions with his colleagues and his former girlfriend and daughter. His faith in himself and the company is on the level of a quasi-religion for his adherents, fans and the shareholders.
Jobs promotes and dispenses this faith in the public view, and turns it into a tangible commodity. Sorkin and Boyle capitalize on this public image and dive underneath to reveal how it is continually challenged and overturned by those significant players around him and show how it is warped by his own unresolved conflicts.
The powerful, god-like image of Jobs the master-builder is ever-present in the film and it is brutally honed by Fassbender’s performance (he articulates at the speed of Jobs’ amped-up, hyper-drive thought processes), and Boyle’s fast-paced cinematography and irregular shot composition. For example at apt junctures in each of the three segments, Boyle guides our view of Jobs’ aura in the minds of fans with the use of overhead shots of the launch theater where Jobs is scheduled to speak and where his fans gleefully cheer, clap and stomp their feet as they await his glistening words. Boyle has only to shoot the raucous, lionizing fans at the theater a few times representing the 1984, 1988 and 1998 launches to remind us of how Jobs generated and harnessed his amazing success then used it as a weapon to defend himself against his inner issues and the confrontations he had with others.
The fan shots of the waiting audience contrast with the behind the scenes interactions, arguments, flare-ups, creating the tumultuous, anxious and frenetic atmosphere surrounding launch preparations. The head to head scenes are intimate, captured with medium shots, close-ups and tight shots of Jobs with his co-workers and former girlfriend Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston). These individuals are the ones who confront him about his decisions and actions, and provide the threads which reveal the personal and private sides of a complex, tightly woven, conflicted and impenetrable genius.
In Boyle’s and Sorkin’s presentation, it is crystal clear that Jobs’ fan adoration and success are the chakras which exponentially empower him to believe he is always right. Indeed, his past triumph allows him to make himself his own demi-god (certainly a tragic flaw). But those who knew him before he was on top of Mt. Olympus are his closest friends (Seth Rogan as Steve Wozniack, Kate Winslet as Johanna Hoffman, Jeff Daniels as CEO John Sculley, Michael Stuhlbarg as Andy Hertzfeld, Katherine Waterston as Chrisann Brennan). These, especially Hoffman (Kate Winslet is perfection except for the accent which is confusingly obtrusive in the iMac segment), and former girlfriend Brennan keep him flying at a modest level. Both women challenge his world view and smash his “inviolate” outer shell with their truthfulness. They dismiss his obfuscations and self-aggrandizement, call him on his illogical presumptions and provide a moderating influence when he chooses to listen to them.
Throughout each of the three historic launches, beautifully captured by art and musical direction (sets, costumes, hair, etc.), filmmakers reveal that his closest male colleagues also have the greatest ability to penetrate Jobs’ psyche. However, whether they spark the emotional thread which Jobs succumbs to is questionable; Jobs’ steely intellect and attention to the over-arching mission throttle all who would venture to areas in his soul where he, himself, does not dare to go. Boyle and Sorkin use brief, varied flashbacks and comments by others to reference emotional components in his childhood (i.e. his response to his adoption), and other pertinent nuances from Isaacson’s biography. Their inclusion is slipped in like afterthoughts; these details work as flashes of revelation which evanesce quickly while filmmakers weave in the themes of the film. Such themes whisper questions; we attempt to grasp who Jobs is and why he is driven to innovate and recreate the world in his own image.
Nothing is easy about Jobs; filmmakers intimations about why he responds as he does especially about his daughter force us into a labyrinth. The more we try to figure out the myth, and believe we’ve nailed it, the more lost we become. The maze even encompasses the sticky mash-ups during the times (always), when Jobs is in heightened confrontations with others. These scenes humorously crescendo just before Jobs is set to go onstage for the launch. Boyle and Sorkin have selected these complex interactions to provide the frenetic pacing and intense drama. Each time Jobs goes head to head with Wozniack, or Hoffman or Hertzfeld or Sculley and especially with his former girlfriend Chrisann Brennan who is always petitioning him about their daughter Lisa, the dramatic strain reveals the dark shadows of the man, his weaknesses, his emotional vacancy, his restraint, his obsession with perfection. These moments secure our engagement and pronounce the controversial issues surrounding each launch.
The crucial turning point is in 1988, after he’s been fired. Flashbacks between CEO Scully and Jobs allow us to glimpse an interpretation of what occurred. These scenes are adroitly cut with shots of loyal fans cheering for him to appear and present his NeXT Company’s Cube. From the depths of his firing, Jobs creates the masterstrokes. He establishes his plan, which no one saw coming, not even those closest to him. Then voila! He magically recombines with his former company and rises to the top. The demi-god is lifted up once more. His global audience is thrilled and faith is restored.
Behind the public cameras, off stage, the filmmakers effectively tear through the veils of Jobs’ public persona. Toward the end of the film as his personality seems to soften toward his daughter, we note how his faith is burnished and emboldened by life’s blunt hammers, Hoffman, Wozniak, Chrisann. His humanity deepens and he admits to his imperfections and owns his weaknesses with wry humor. Once again, Boyle and Sorkin prove that the man is capable of saving himself with a flourish.
But is he merely being ingenuous? By this point, it is 1998. The die has been cast; the iPod is on the clouded horizon. In conquering a frontier that his competition will ever beat or even understand, it is obvious he sacrificed much including a profound humanity. We believe it was worth it. Does he? In the choices that we understand Jobs makes, the filmmakers remind us that the foundation has been set for the company’s future successes (he is on the rooftop with his daughter referring to the iPod). The plans have been established for company profitability in tax avoidance; its malevolence will be revealed by some of the most egregious examples of corporate excess and abuse of workers through outsourcing.
The duality Boyle draws between “master” and “man with clay feet” is stronger than ever by the film’s end. It is suggested by the contrast set up between Jobs and Wozniak. Wozniak delivers a succinct, wry comment contrasting the two personalities. We are left wondering wherein lies Jobs’ genius that apologizes with a self-effacing smile? Must it exclude kindness and warmth and must people die for the sake of its obsessive, angst-ridden expression? Perhaps. The argument is left for future historians. We’re just along for the ride.
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