Review: Steve Jobs

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Geniuses are difficult to quantify, and even harder to encapsulate. Is their outlook on the world unique to their specific passion, or does it stretch beyond their vocational focus? Further, being a genius is not necessarily synonymous with messianic purpose. By design, geniuses are not meant to fit into typical societal constructs. Suffice to say familiarity is not where geniuses live. Steve Jobs certainly took his place amongst the great minds of the 20th century with Apple, which has undoubtedly revolutionized multiple industries. In the years since his death, there have been several attempts to portray Jobs in various mediums, but little is considered to be a definitive account. Steve Jobs the film takes the man’s name for its title and offers less of a reportage and more of a portrait of the tech giant. While its unconventionally bold structure and writing are thrillingly outside of the box, Steve Jobs is merely a competent biopic, with occasional flashes of the genius it seeks to emulate.

A great many biopics are cradle to the grave narratives. They begin with the subject’s early life and explore the decades leading up to the end of a career or a major achievement. Then there are some biopics which center around a single defining moment and use that as a spring board to explore the subject. Steve Jobs is somewhere in between those two approaches. Beyond the products he sold, Jobs was quite famous for his salesmanship, in which one could find his charisma in full bloom. With this film, writer Aaron Sorkin takes three defining keynotes and created a deliberate three act structure with each act based around each product launch: the Macintosh in 1984, the NEXT computer in 1988, and finally the iMac in 1998. However, the keynotes themselves are not the focus. Rather, all of the backstage drama leading up to each reveal provides the meaty conflict, both professional and personal.

There is no better place to assess Steve Jobs than with the man himself. Michael Fassbender takes on the title role, and while he’s had trouble in the past of letting his native Irish accent squeak into his performances, here he keeps it largely submerged. It’s fair to say that Fassbender doesn’t bear much physical resemblance to Jobs, the former’s angular, chiseled features coming in contrast to the latter’s softer, rounded edges. This supports the film’s mission of portraiture over accuracy, and Fassbender certainly displays the charisma and iron clad willpower that defined Jobs. The tricky thing is that the actor finds himself caught between impersonation and interpretation, but in the moments when he finds the right groove, Fassbender is highly commanding. He also has a game ensemble around him, starting with Kate Winslet as personal adviser and assistant Joanna Hoffman, who finds herself drawn into Jobs’ personal battles while trying to manage his public ones. Seth Rogen is also quite convincing as Steve Wozniak, Jobs’ early partner in founding Apple who has since left the company. Rogen gets a terrific monologue in the film’s second act, which crystallizes Jobs’ professional and public conflicts.

It’s quite clear that Steve Jobs has no intentions to deify its subject, and Aaron Sorkin certainly has experience with knocking down widely hailed figures down a couple of pegs. The film’s aforementioned structure is it’s most compelling and unique feature, taking dozens of liberties for the sake of propulsion and emotion over situational fidelity. From malfunctioning hardware to dysfunctional family problems, Sorkin manages to cram a great deal into each act and cohesively follows through on multiple threads to their conclusions. Granted, it is highly unlikely that Jobs could be having a war of words with his ex-wife (Katherine Waterston) and his former boss (Jeff Daniels) just minutes before he takes the stage, but that escalation makes the tension juicier. Sorkin’s dialogue tics, metaphors and quips are in abundance as usual, confirming the stylized writer’s talents are ever present.

A project as ambitious in conception as this one has a high ceiling for execution, so it’s curious that Steve Jobs only manages to sporadically soar. Director Danny Boyle is nearly as well known for his visual choices as Sorkin is for his aural cadences, yet his voice feels subdued. Perhaps he chose to defer to Sorkin’s verbose and layered script, but as a result there’s little of Boyle’s directorial edge to complement the spoken words. For every scene that has a hint of an interesting shot, much of the rest is characterized by pedestrian coverage or distancing telephoto compositions. This typically wouldn’t be much of a problem, but because much of the film takes place indoors, the choices feel constrained. Where the film does realize its full potential is largely in the editing of the very final minutes of each act, leading into an emotional montage that barrels into the next act. Alas, the spark of Boyle’s high voltage filmmaking is visible in spurts, but it never quite accelerates consistently to match the story. There are so many elements in play, from the writing to the casting to the direction that should, in theory, cinematically embody Steve Jobs. The fact that the film works yet doesn’t fire on all cylinders should give one an appreciation for how elusive genius can really be.

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~ by romancinema on October 12, 2015.

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