How do you make an icon even more iconic? A bit of dramatic license helps, not to mention leveraging the vibe of the most recent Oscar winner for Best Picture. Throw in some of the best actors working in film today – particularly a charismatic leading man. And there you have it: an instant burnish on the shine of one of the most iconic figures of the recent past -- Steve Jobs.
That all may sound a bit snarky, but it is not intended so. In fact, ‘Steve Jobs’, Danny Boyle’s film of Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay based on Walter Isaacson’s book is an outstanding film. It is a glimpse behind the curtains (pun absolutely intended, as you will soon discover) into the complexities of the mind and the man who has impacted almost all of our lives in one way or another. But one cannot help but do a bit of nitpicking, particularly if this film is intended to be the ‘biopic’ that is advertised.
OK, let’s pick for just a moment before we start slathering on the praise. ‘Steve Jobs’ presents the title character at three critical points in his life by going backstage before the presentation of three major products: the original Macintosh computer, the Next Computer and the iMac. This is where the film begins to feel more than a bit like ‘Birdman’, last year’s Best Picture. While not one continuous tracking shot, the camera still follows Jobs around as he wanders the backstages, dressing rooms and rehearsal halls, interacting with the main characters. It is a very effective concept, and creates a sense of spontaneity that the story does not really have, being at its core a long form narrative biography. And yet, if you have seen ‘Birdman’, the comparison is irresistible and distracting – at least it was to me.
Second, there are things in the film that simply did not happen – the dramatic license that creates, well, drama. Again, it works in the context of the film: seeing Jobs interact with the daughter he has heretofore disavowed in the moments before the release of the original Mac is extraordinarily engaging. But then you feel that you are being tricked into the emotions you are feeling. That scene did not happen (particularly if you have read Isaacson’s book), and yet Boyle wants you to empathize with Jobs and his creations – human and computer. Coming so early in the film, it creates a sense of skepticism that haunts a number of other encounters between Jobs and other characters. Is it real or is it Sorkinex?
Having now done my nitpicking, I must say that ‘Steve Jobs’ is a powerful, beautifully made film, filled with excellent performances. At the epicenter is Michael Fassbender as Jobs. Fassbender is one of the best actors working in film, and a personal favorite of mine, so perhaps a bit of bias is showing through. But he seems to get the mercurial, maniacal personality of Jobs – at least as we have learned from Isaacson and others – down perfectly. At once screaming, then cajoling, then begging, then threatening, we see a man who has a vision and won’t allow anything other than that vision to be realized – damn the damage to his family, friends, company – and self.
Facing off against Fassbender are some equally talented actors who more than hold their own. Jeff Daniels as John Scully, Apple’s CEO, is particularly good; as is Kate Winslet in an unrecognizable role as Joanna Hoffman, Apple’s head of marketing and the only person who seems to really understand Jobs. But the most empathic character in the film is Seth Rogen as Jobs original partner Steve Wozniak. Rogen is outstanding as the geeky ‘Woz’ who knows the truth behind the facades and seeks only a bit of acknowledgement from Jobs as an equal partner in the enterprise. But Jobs ego won’t allow it – and Woz’s fragile personality won’t demand it. It is a beautiful, troubled pas de deux that the two play throughout the film.
But the real driver of the film is Jobs relationship with his daughter, Lisa Brennan, played by three different actresses at the different points in the film. By using this touchpoint through the film – the troubled relationship of a father whose own childhood traumas color his relationship with his daughter out of wedlock – Boyle is able to examine the many sides of Jobs personality and present the protagonist in several different ways. It works, even if it is a device. The relationship anchors the film in a way that probably could not be done otherwise. Certainly many of the moments represented in the film happened ‘conceptually’, if not actually. And regardless, it works, providing a story arc that is compelling, interesting and dramatically pleasing.
‘Steve Jobs’ is a complex film, with plenty of opportunities for ‘discussion’. But isn’t that the point? It might be the perfect film to see with friends and then head out to dinner after. I guarantee that there will be plenty of lively conversation and (potentially heated) debate. But even if you want to see it and just debate with me via the internet, it is still a great film!