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Review: Steve Jobs

November 12, 2015

By John Corrado

★★★★ (out of 4)

 A fascinating character study that betrays the usual biopic formula to offer something much deeper and more rewarding in its portrayal of a widely celebrated but extremely complex real life subject, Steve Jobs is a thrilling look at the Apple figurehead during some of the most crucial moments of his career.

The film opens backstage at the product launch for the Macintosh in 1984, a machine touted to revolutionize personal computing, as Steve Jobs (Michael Fassbender) tries to work out the final glitches of the operating system, a job that falls upon his overworked programmer, Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg).

The glitch in question involves the computer being able to say “hello” when you turn it on, an uncooperative feature that Steve Jobs is insistent must be fixed in the forty minutes before the curtain goes up and the machine is introduced to the audience.  This sequence not only perfectly sets the stage for the pressure cooker suspense that is often felt throughout, but also provides one of the greatest metaphors for both the tech giant’s obsessively controlling personality, and the want for his products to trick customers into seeing them as friendly and appealing.

The film unfolds in three distinct acts, also taking us behind the scenes at the product launches for the NeXT in 1988, when Steve Jobs was no longer working for Apple and trying to branch out on his own, and culminating with the unveiling of the iMac in 1998.  There are intermittent flashbacks to flesh out important pieces of the backstory, but this narrative approach gives a sense of immediacy to Steve Jobs, with each sequence unfolding pretty much in real time, as the subjects inch closer to deadlines and things grow increasingly tense and volatile between them.

The film compellingly explores his rocky relationships with Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), the unfairly maligned tech genius who actually invented the startup company’s original computers, marketing executive Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), who takes an almost maternalistic tough love approach in her dealings with him, and CEO John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), who becomes a sort of surrogate father figure.  These characters all become recurrent players throughout the film, as each conversation between them and Steve Jobs grows deeper over the course of the three acts.

Although celebrating the technical achievements of his company, Steve Jobs isn’t interested in falsely worshipping its title subject as a hero, instead offering a nuanced portrait of him as a man who gained status by abusing power, and was completely ruthless when it came to exercising control and advancing his own personal gain.  His tortured genius facade is pulled back to show him as someone who was torturous in his interactions with other people, even refusing to claim parentage of his daughter Lisa (Makenzie Moss), or give adequate financial support to her struggling mother (Katherine Waterston).

These subjects were also recently explored in Alex Gibney’s searing documentary expose Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine, which would make an excellent companion piece.  But where that film offered a completely factual retelling of his story, Steve Jobs serves as a thrilling dramatization of key moments from his life.  This is a study of what could have happened backstage at these events, and the film finds some of its best and most electrifying moments in the scenes where the exchanges get increasingly nasty, allowing the bravura performances to take centre stage.

Michael Fassbender disappears into this role, portraying Steve Jobs as an enigmatic man with a calmly cool public persona and simmering intensity just beneath the surface, who was almost impossible to pin down in his moments of grandiosity and extreme neuroses.  He delivers a remarkable performance that is mesmerizing to watch, impressively capturing both the physical mannerisms and vocal cadences of his counterpart.  By the third act, the physical resemblance between them is uncanny, as the actor appears pale and skinny behind his thinning hair, round glasses and black turtleneck tucked into faded jeans.

Seth Rogen delivers some of his finest dramatic work, bringing an incredible amount of sympathy to his role, and Jeff Daniels also excels in a meaty showcase for his acting talents.  Their respective scenes when they go head to head with the title figure are some of the best in the film, extended sequences that allow them to hold their own alongside the unwavering Michael Fassbender.  Kate Winslet, Katherine Waterston and Michael Stuhlbarg do uniformly excellent work fleshing out the supporting cast, and are all given their fair share of standout moments.

Aaron Sorkin’s crackling and brilliantly worded dialogue moves at a fast and furious pace, with scenes ranging from emotionally charged to cutting and barbed.  The often heated spoken exchanges that make up the majority of the film are as compelling as any thriller, revealing so much about these characters through their interactions and how they respond under pressure.  Danny Boyle directs this all with a sure hand, injecting a few moments of his usual visual flair into the proceedings, utilizing sharp editing and using different formats for each of the three time periods to give them all a distinct look and feel.

The film ends on a somewhat redemptive note, with the iPod still on the horizon, an invention that would later give way to what is arguably his company’s most successful and widely used technical achievement, the iPhone.  Working with the same attractive stealth as one of the Apple products at its centre, Steve Jobs is a gripping and brilliantly acted portrait of a man consumed by power, and the people closest to him on his rise to the top, that unfolds like a perfectly orchestrated piece of machinery.

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