“Steve Jobs” – An Abstract Portrait on Greatness versus Decency

Does being a “great” man mean you can’t be a “decent” one? That is the question that director Danny Boyle (28 Days Later, Trainspotting, Slumdog Millionaire) and Aaron Sorkin’s (The West Wing, The Social Network, The Newsroom) Steve Jobs asks. Eschewing a traditional fact-based biopic form, this film is a perfect storm of cinematic energy. Rather than lay out the complete career and/or life of the real  Steve Jobs, the three-part film distills the man as a figure for “great” men as an essence, an interpretation if you will, from three pivotal moments of the actual man’s history. The film offers key snapshots that race along on a jovial pace and a propulsive momentum that never lets up. Yes, it’s Aaron Sorkin mapping out story, characters and dialogue so exaggerated in his personal style, that it almost seems like self-parody, but somehow it all works. Filled with strong performances and lively exchanges with the hindsight of history providing context, Steve Jobs is a genuine entertainment that does not rely on spectacle or sensationalism to excite us.

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Dividing the movie into three sections, the film follows the minutes leading up to 3 different product reveals. The movie begins in 1984 with the debut of the Macintosh, skips ahead to 1988 for the unveiling of the NeXT and then closes in 1998 for the reveal of the iMac which was the big game-changer for Apple as they rose to the tech juggernaut they are now. The goal of the film was not a beat by beat history lesson but rather an approximation of the man and what he represents through particular times in his life. All three segments fall into a familiar pattern, with would-be presentation details being sorted out while old conflicts and new issues raise their head.

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Beyond Michael Fassbender’s  (who looks nothing like Steve Jobs) turning in a surprising performance completely based on posture, movement, speech patterns and control over his screen presence to *become* Steve Jobs, the rest of the cast shines just as bright. As befitting a Sorkin penned-play this is all character drama and interaction and the players specifically Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg), and Apple CEO John Scully (Jeff Daniels, in a movie-stealing performance) bring their parts to life with equal gusto as Fassbender. However the film is less concerned with the accuracy of the portrayals so much as an abstract expressionist painting of their presence.  The core of the film is Fassbender as Steve coming at  crossroads between his drive to be a “great” man who achieves versus the “decent” man he needs to be to the people around him and it is extrapolated through his core relationships with his confidant Joanna and his daughter Lisa. Fassbender and Winslet are so great in this picture (when are they not?) as they trade barbs back and forth while Perla Haney-Jardine and Makenzie Moss, portraying Lisa,  hold their own against Fassbender during various stages of her life. Everyone is on top of their game here, and everyone is flat-out terrific.

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No one should be taking this picture for exact science or pure factual biography; it works on its own terms. Sorkin has long been obsessed with the conflict between traditional relationships or conventional happiness versus drive and ambition and this film is definitely at par with The Social Network rather than The West Wing or The Newsroom. Aaron Sorkin uses Jobs as an archetypal portrait of “a great man” by rooting his interpretation in the acknowledgment that the things these people created may have been better than the people who created them. Unlike his more cynical works, it also draws a line in the sand on the notion that so-called great men can also be decent people if they want to be. While the movie makes no compunctions about how “exceptional” often stands on the backs of other innovators to hog the spotlight for themselves, it also shows a way for these types to find redemption outside of their solipsism.

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Assumed deeper meanings aside, the film is a cinematic triumph of writing, story and performance. In terms of directing, editing, and cinematography, however, Danny Boyle’s idiosyncrasies can often feel intrusive. For most of the film he maintains a deft hand but whenever he attempts to show off his hand stylistically you almost want to slap it away (80s video effects, projections & cross-cut juxtapositions and more indulgent and out of place tics are scattered about the film).   This movie does not seem to be resonating with the public, perhaps it’s a symptom of audiences fatigued by another “Look how complicated this remarkable man was and/or how he screwed up his personal relationships while he was changing the world and negating the hard work of those he collaborated with” awards-bait dramas. And that’s a shame because this is sort of the adult-minded mainstream fare that the same audiences clamor for when we are bombarded with CGI armies and franchise crossovers. And again, the film’s psychology may be a little too on-the-nose to believe. However the parts that do work in Steve Jobs as well as it’s unconventional approach to taking the life of a real person and using them as a vehicle to talk about something else makes for a terrific experience. Steve Jobs is one of the most entertaining movies of the year and while it is debatable that computer may or may not be of the same value as a painting or symphony, Steve Jobs is definitely a work of art.

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