As a lifelong admirer of the mastermind of the Macintosh and architect of the Apple legacy, I suppose it’s fitting that my first piece here on ZiMB would be a review of the Danny Boyle biopic about one of my lifelong heroes: Steve Jobs, starring Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Seth “Best-Woz-Ever” Rogen, and Jeff “Sorkin’s Favorite Actor” Daniels. We’ve been down this road before with mixed results, but not yet with Boyle’s direction, woven with a tapestry of words by Aaron Sorkin, rooted in the captivating-but-thorough biography by Walter Isaacson. But is it as “insanely great” as Apple and Jobs followers would hope? The answer is… mostly!
If this film was a brand new iPhone release, it would be much more of a Tim Cook iPhone than a Steve Jobs iPhone. Still very cool, potentially inspiring, but practical and realistic within the market in a way that many of us are not accustomed to. By contrast, the previous Hollywood attempt at this subject, the Ashton Kutcher led Jobs was more like an iPod touch. It left you wondering how much research was really done before it was rushed out to an already-unimpressed audience, many of whom are too old to care about its style and will probably just wait patiently for the iPhone release instead.
When taking a critical look at Steve Jobs, I feel we should build up from the bottom, like a good Keynote would, and for me, the bottom of this movie’s list of traits is its unremarkable Daniel Pemberton score. To be fair, my confidence in proper sound presentation at the local cinema is pretty low, and perhaps a subsequent viewing will elevate this trait, but overall, I found it to be the least of the offerings in the film. This is unfortunate, given the brilliance of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ musical landscape heard against Sorkin’s verbiage in The Social Network.
The story is staged in three very deliberate acts, presented as build-ups to major product release moments: the Mac, the NeXT cube and the iMac. It could be said that the third act is the weakest, but given the swift pace and cleverness of Sorkin’s typical fare, the gap we may feel is due to length. By comparison to the prior two, Act III is over before you know it and much of the interaction is with a character outside the Apple crew. This, too, could be a contributing factor to the feeling of brevity, as we know much more about the Apple team within existing tech pop culture and expansion on those tales tends to stick to us more.
That rapid-fire script-brilliance we’ve come to expect from Sorkin? The film delivers it in spades. Entirely tragic, not-funny moments will easily turn into instances of chuckles, on cleverness and flow alone, and that helps insulate some of the tenser moments in the film. Not to say that these moments need anything to insulate them. One such example is an absolutely exquisite mid-film confrontation between Fassbender’s Jobs and Daniel’s Scully (hint: it’s not exactly the spat you’re thinking). In an embodiment of intensity itself, peppered with hard-hitting snapshot flashbacks, the two deliver a verbal tug-of-war which ends in a definitive draw and leaves the audience taking a very palpable deep breath in recovery. It is the crown jewel of the film, and a moment of thespian muscle-flexing which must be witnessed by even the most anti-Apple cynics.
The leveraging of ideal casting in this film is common among all of its roles. It has been a long time — think Anthony Hopkins’ Nixon — since I forgot how little the actor looked like the character and accepted their speech, mannerisms and the fuel of the screenplay as reality. Fassbender seems to be only a slight replica of Jobs based on the trailers, but within the film, he is very legitimate. On the other side of the famous dynamic Apple duo with whom we are all so familiar, we have Seth Rogen’s ideal casting in the role of Steve Wozniak. Comedic actors who take on serious roles usually see polar critical results. They flop or they flourish. In the case of Rogen’s Woz, his effortless presence as the Apple co-founder sails genuinely over home plate.
Upon his literal stage-right mid-Act-I entry, Daniels’ command of the Wally to Jobs’ Beaver plays very well. This is to be expected, since Jeff Daniels and Aaron Sorkin go together like cookies and milk, as any fan of The Newsroom can attest. In playing John Sculley with such a relatable style, Daniels gives a sympathetic background on the great legends we all think we know so well. As a person who has lived a similar experience to that of Steve Jobs in the complicated politics of a corporate divorce, their strained relationship hits home the most. Daniels holds claim to one of the most poignant lines of dialogue delivered in the film when he laments the great things he and Jobs might have done together.
Last, but not at all least, is the wouldn’t-have-known-it-if-you-didn’t-tell-me-it-was-her performance delivered by Winslet in her portrayal of Joanna Hoffman. She’s the famed “work-wife” who was known to be singular in her willingness to stand up to the bullying genius of Jobs’ mania. Despite what is a somewhat wandering and inconsistent attempt at an Eastern-European accent throughout the film, her performance is one in which she melts away into the character, just as much as the three men whose names are alongside hers on the movie poster.
One of the greatest gifts of Steve Jobs is the subject character’s reality of imperfection. It has always been a trait of Jobs which I appreciated in it’s tragedy and related to in my own creative process. Jobs was a man with many compromising traits, and this film presents them just at the edge of wretchedness in a truly challenging way. You learn to power through the well-known negativity which tempered Jobs’ imaginative visions to get to the shiny and amazing parts in the payoff, much like the teams of engineers and developers who Woz spends the entire film advocating recognition for.
The one element of the story which moves throughout the film’s acts, is Jobs’ daughter Lisa. In an appropriately poetic fashion, she is a fixture in his life, against which the other moments of the tale are framed in many ways. All the way through to the closing moments, we are able to view a good portion of the Steve Jobs story as a relationship denied and later accepted. A brand of redemption, in a way. Despite a risk that such a device might reduce a key person in Jobs’ life to a cheap vehicle for drama, this plays well — especially when positioned as a key concern of Winslet’s Hoffman.
This film serves Apple fans and casual observers alike. There is no reliance on tech knowledge or vast awareness of the extended Apple family (such as the frequently-mentioned invisible character of Apple’s legendary contract ad-man, Lee Clow) but it helps. Fans of a good biopic or drama will find the depth of the tale to be satisfying while possibly learning more about a larger-than-life tech icon who almost everyone feels they already “know.” Each character is driven by their unique overarching ethos, for better or worse, and that is Steve Jobs’ key to a good ensemble of talent, working with such a fluid and precise script.
Steve Jobs may earn a few looks and perhaps some official nods in the coming award season. The tale of the man who asked us to Think Different is far too vast and nuanced for a single installment of cinema, of course, but this film makes an array of good choices in what to employ to meet its storytelling goal. It doesn’t try to be too much or fall short as too little. A solid, confident, artistically crafted journey awaits those who log on.
Ask Siri for a showtime.