by Jordan Canahai
How could a brilliant man who always strived to better alter how technology functioned in our world also lead a personal life that was, in so many ways, anything but functional? It’s a question that lies at the heart of Steve Jobs, the unconventional biopic about the Apple co-founder from director Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire) and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network). Like that film, Steve Jobs draws upon the real-life story of a technological pioneer and deeply flawed genius to detail how he shaped recent history while exploring what made him tick. Boyle and Sorkin do this by showing Jobs (Michael Fassbender) at three different product launches throughout his career; first the Macintosh in 1984, then the NeXT computer following his release from Apple in 1988, and finally the iMac after he returned to the company ten years later in 1998. Through backstage interactions and flashbacks, we see Jobs’ strained interactions with a handful of key people, including Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), marketing executive Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), former Apple CEO John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), and an old girlfriend Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston) with whom he fathered an illegitimate daughter.
With its monochromatic color scheme, sleek camera movements, and precise compositions, Steve Jobs seems to have been shot as if to recall the artful yet efficient design of Apple’s products. A first-rate visual stylist, Boyle’s choice to shoot the film’s three time periods in different film stocks (16 mm for ‘84, 35 mm for ‘88, and digital for ‘98) works to the film’s advantage rather than coming off distracting or a gimmick. Indeed, the film largely succeeds because the collaboration of talent, both behind and in front of the camera, embodies the same contradictions inherent in the man at the film’s center. Boyle’s often kinetic style of direction is present, but dialed slightly down as to better clash with Sorkin’s grounded, talky screenplay. This, along with the high-energy performances from the superb ensemble cast, lends the film a restless tension. Fassbender manages to be both manic and controlled, perfectly conveying the focused intensity Jobs famously possessed. His work stands in stark contrast to Rogen’s portrayal of Wozniak as the down-to-earth, empathetic nerd who represents both Jobs’ foil and conscience.
Amongst the various feature films to be made about Steve Jobs since his passing in 2011, including the forgettable Jobs starring Ashton Kutcher as well as the documentary Steve Jobs: The Man and The Machine, Boyle and Sorkin’s film is easily the best of the lot. In fact, the film Steve Jobs suffers most in relation to is not about Jobs or Apple, but rather The Social Network, which ranks as one of the best films of the last five years. Steve Jobs invites numerous comparisons to that masterpiece, and ultimately suffers for it. In fact, save for one virtuoso midpoint scene in which Jobs confronts his former boss backstage at the NeXT launch intercut with flashbacks from the boardroom meeting which led to him being fired years earlier, there’s nothing here which packs the emotional punch that defined the best moments of The Social Network. Also, while the final moments of that film were handled pitch-perfectly, the ending of Steve Jobs seems to wrap things up far too neatly, where some messy open-endedness would have felt more appropriate given what preceded it.
Despite those reservations, and whatever liberties Sorkin’s screenplay may have taken with real-life facts, I’m inclined to give the filmmakers the benefit of the doubt and concede they made a film that does justice to their subject. Steve Jobs utilizes the latest film technologies along with first-rate classical storytelling to offer an intelligent, insightful, and yes, highly functional portrait of Steve Jobs, embodying much of the philosophy which defined him in both content and form.
Watch the trailer for Steve Jobs
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