Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Catching Up: "Steve Jobs"

 2.5 / 5 

To publish this review, my fingers slid and danced across the sleek aluminum surface of my MacBook Pro.  I tapped, pinched, swiped and dragged my hands, and to someone dropped into this century from the middle of the last one, it might have appeared I was practicing some new art form, a combination of typing and magic.

For those of us who knew an entire life without computers, it can still feel a little like an illusion, all the things we can do with our MacBooks and our iPhones and iPads and everything else Steve Jobs had a hand in creating.  Could one man really have been responsible for all this, for this shift in the way we do almost everything?

Well, no.  Steve Jobs (played in the film by Michael Fassbender) was many things, no doubt, but he was not a computer engineer or a mathematician or a designer or a marketer or a coder or an architect.  He knew how they worked, though, and how to put them together. He had people who worked for him who did all those things, who made them all happen, and based on the evidence presented in Danny Boyle's film Steve Jobs, he had nothing but disdain and contempt for those people, while they, in turn, sometimes idolized him, sometimes respected him, sometimes feared him, sometimes hated him -- but couldn't help but want to please him.

Everyone needed to make Jobs happy, and for their trouble, Jobs made the lion's share of the money and got almost all of the fame and glory because ... well, because he could.  Jobs was the salesman.  He didn't create the thing, he didn't design the brochure, he didn't build the showroom, but, boy, could he sell it.  Even when the results were disastrous, you couldn't fault the showmanship.

The script for Steve Jobs rather too neatly divides itself into thirds, each one set on the day of a major product launch: the 1984 introduction of the Macintosh, the 1988 unveiling of the NeXT computer, the 1998 debut of the iMac.  (Two of them were spectacular failures.)

It's a highly theatrical setup that makes Steve Jobs feel almost like a filmed play, and that sharply limits its ability to explore Jobs's emotions (if he had any) and internal motivations (which he most certainly did) without resorting to words.

They're Sorkin's words, which means they're the best, most well-chosen words money can buy -- but they are words, not actions, and time after time, Steve Jobs violates the old chestnut of a rule that has guided moviemaking for so long: show, don't tell.  Steve Jobs has to tell just about everything, facts and emotions alike, but it doesn't actually convey much.  Audiences who walk in knowing nothing about Jobs or Apple will likely end up confused and frustrated, because amid all those words there is little room for explanation.

Each third contains almost the same characters and same setup, so Steve Jobs feels a little like a real-life Groundhog Day as Jobs' head of marketing Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), his former partner Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), his sometime boss and mentor John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), his estranged girlfriend Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston) and their daughter Lisa (played by a trio of young actresses) appears in every iteration, along with various put-upon, abused members of Jobs's team.

Twenty minutes before each product launch, Jobs's personal life comes crashing down and barging in, mixing and matching with what he's supposed to be rehearsing for.  Jobs could have opened his own nightclub in Casablanca, because everybody comes to Steve's, invited or not.  The setup feels contrived, at best, and though it's a sort of neat idea that the film is going for, it feels claustrophobic and confining, and to provide any sort of perspective at all, the movie has to resort to a number of flashbacks at key moments.

It's also got a huge liability in the way it portrays Jobs as a merciless, humorless tyrant whose relentless attention to business detail may make him fascinating on the page, but don't translate into an effective character.  He's angry, hostile, belittling, demeaning and humiliating -- and those are the good qualities.  It's thoroughly unpleasant to watch him harass and debase everyone around him, and when the film tries, in its last few minutes, to find his humanity, it's too little and too late.

That said, Steve Jobs is well-performed by everyone, it's beautifully shot in three different formats (a technique completely lost on the TV screen), and it manages wonderfully to depict three very different eras, even though we're basically only seeing the inside of buildings.

Technically, Steve Jobs gets everything right.  But movies aren't computers, and in the case of Steve Jobs, technical mastery just isn't enough.

Viewed Jan. 11, 2016 -- DVD

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