Friday, October 23, 2015

Steve Jobs: A tarnished Apple

Steve Jobs (2015) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated R, for profanity and dramatic intensity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 10.23.15

The ensemble cast is strong, impeccably directed and well-suited to each role.

The dialog is rat-a-tat enthralling: classic Aaron Sorkin arguments and badinage, with verbal zingers and snarky rejoinders landing like physical blows, recipients wincing in pain or retreating behind wary glances. It’s the stuff that made The Social Network and TV’s West Wing and The Newsroom so spellbinding: the intelligent, sharp-edged and fast-paced discourse that we’re neither clever enough, nor quick-witted enough, to deliver in real life.

Struggling to find some way to connect with the young daughter whose paternity he denies,
Steve Jobs (Michael Fassbender) encourages Lisa (Makenzie Moss) to play with a
spanking-new Macintosh computer. "You can't break it," he promises.
It feels more like an intimate, minimalist stage play, and in fact Sorkin has structured it that way, with three distinct acts. I was reminded, more than once, of David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, made into a similarly mesmerizing 1992 film.

But those characters were fictitious, if familiar archetypes that we’d likely find in the rapacious atmosphere of a high-end, nail-the-deal-no-matter-what real estate office.

Steve Jobs, in contrast, profiles the actual Apple guru, with ample attention paid to the close advisors circling his incandescent star. (He doesn’t appear to have any actual friends.)

And not once, not for a second, did I feel that Sorkin and director Danny Boyle had come anywhere close to capturing the actual Steve Jobs. This relentlessly distracting fact ruins the entire film. Although clearly a sort of “truthiness” — the script is adapted from Walter Isaacson’s thoroughly researched biography of Jobs — this drama seems to exist in a parallel universe where Sorkin has indulged in his own myth-making.

Goodness knows, Jobs was highly skilled at crafting and stage-managing the persona he displayed in public. And, in the interest of full disclosure, Sorkin has described this film as an “impressionistic portrait” of Jobs: an abstraction concocted to surround the Apple guru with the same six characters, at three crucial points in his career, and let them “bang on each other.”

A “heightened version of real life,” Boyle adds, in the press notes.

Balderdash. Those quotes sound like a defensive excuse: an effort to get ahead of the negative publicity destined to emerge — and it definitely has — after Jobs’ actual associates begin to complain, quite noisily, that Sorkin’s so-called portrait is pure hooey.

The degree to which this does or doesn’t prove off-putting will depend on each viewer’s allegiance to truth, and/or a sense of the real-world Jobs. Taken purely on its own merits, Boyle and Sorkin’s film deserves all the descriptive accolades cited in my opening paragraphs; it is riveting.

But even if we give Boyle and Sorkin the benefit of that particular doubt, we cannot escape one glaringly obvious problem: The Steve Jobs depicted here is a relentless, abusive, unapologetic bully. Michael Fassbender’s nuanced performance notwithstanding, there’s no trace of the persuasive, charismatic futurist who inspired and demanded greatness from his associates and staff.

This big-screen Jobs is just a cruel bastard. He couldn’t inspire anybody to change a light bulb, let alone deliver the miracles that routinely emerged from Apple. And all viewers, even clueless tech luddites, will understand the utter wrongness of this dynamic.

That said, one cannot argue with Sorkin’s clever narrative structure.

The film’s three acts are set during the 40 minutes prior to three product launches: the Macintosh in 1984, the NeXTcube in ’88, and the iMac in ’98. Each act unfolds pretty much in real time, as an obviously harried Jobs — micromanaging each presentation for maximum impact — is counseled, hassled, cajoled and attacked by...

• Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), the gatekeeper and healer forever encouraging Jobs to be his best possible self, and running constant interference in an effort to ensure as much;

• Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), Jobs’ longtime partner — to a point — and the quieter tech guy who did most (all?) of the early work, while Jobs skillfully built a market for their fledgling products;

• John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), the former Pepsi-Cola CEO enticed by Jobs to run Apple in 1983, who must make some difficult decisions in the wake of the disastrous Macintosh launch a year later;

• Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg), a genius computer engineer and part of the original Macintosh team, whose role here is primarily as blunt truth-teller;

• Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston), Jobs’ former high school girlfriend and mother of his first child, who is forced into the role of hectoring, frustrated tiger-mother when he denies paternity and refuses to take responsibility for the girl; and

• Lisa (Makenzie Moss, Ripley Sobo and Perla Haney-Jardine), the child in question, whom we observe as she grows into a young adult.

Everybody is excellent, and most of the actors likely were encouraged to avoid blatant imitations of their real-world counterparts. Rogen is the obvious exception; he delivers a dead-on impersonation that’s almost spooky at times. Wozniak also functions as the conscience that Jobs clearly lacks, with “Woz” forever trying to get his colleague (and friend?) to be a better person. Rogen gets the best heartfelt lines, all of which he delivers with earnest sincerity. My favorite: “You can be decent and gifted at the same time.”

As depicted here, Jobs believes otherwise; creatively impassioned artists should answer to nobody, accepting no compromise en route to fulfilling their vision. There’s some truth to that belief, and other trendsetters have been just that ruthless, while often overlooking and/or belittling the legions of people who brought them to fame. (Consider the now-iconic Walt Disney, who cheerfully collected all those Academy Awards for work done by others.)

Fassbender projects and exemplifies precisely that sort of obsessive fervor. The trouble is that he feels more corporate than creative; he belongs in Wall Street pitch meetings, exhorting banks to gouge their customers in ever-more creative ways. There’s no sense of the laid-back California cool — the jeans and T-shirt simplicity — that typified Jobs’ messianic qualities, which in turn inspired the adoring co-workers and end-users (i.e. you and I) who bought his products.

Or didn’t, in some cases, which may come as a surprise to those less familiar with Jobs’ career arc. The initial Macintosh was an overpriced dud that left the company limping along on sales of the “old” Apple II; the NeXTcube was an even bigger flop — little more than a carefully crafted hoax, actually — that Jobs concocted after being pushed out of Apple.

On a more personal note, his encounters with Chrisann are horrific, his casual verbal abuse landing like physical blows on the poor woman. Waterston cannily shades the role: On the one hand, she’s clearly the injured party ... but, at the same time, there’s an undertone of grasping calculation that makes her less than wholly sympathetic. Her arguments with Fassbender are so brutal that they’re exhausting, Waterston making good on the promise she showed with her equally striking work in last year’s Inherent Vice.

Daniels has become an impressively versatile character actor with a flair for roles that demand complexity and compassion in the midst of “hard choices” that Must Be Made For The Greater Good. (Consider his similar top-dog part in The Martian.) Sorkin crafts Sculley as the father-figure that Jobs lacked in his own life; this develops into a relationship of mutual respect that, in turn, becomes tainted when Shakespearean-level “betrayal” becomes necessary.

We grieve for Sculley, as this “foster father” is angrily cast aside by the frequently petulant Jobs ... who (of course) is never, ever wrong.

Winslet’s Joanna — forever harried and hurried, and always at Jobs’ heels — is the long-suffering saint: the one person who clearly decided, long ago, that she’ll tolerate all of her boss’ wretched excess, in order to remain trusted and valued. She blinks off his stinging rebukes, Winslet’s face nonetheless displaying the pain of each cutting remark (which, needless to say, Jobs never notices). Ultimately, she balks not at anything he says or does to her, but at his thoughtless cruelty toward an innocent “outsider.”

That would be Lisa, whose scenes with her father — at these three formative moments in her own life — are this film’s sole emotional respite. Fassbender’s work with these three actresses is fascinating; it’s like we can see Jobs learning how to be a parent, one grinding act or remark at a time. He simply doesn’t know how to respond to love, and of course nothing is more pure than the uncomplicated worship of an affectionate child.

These moments are heartbreakers.

The various verbal scuffles are choreographed superbly by Boyle, editor Elliot Graham and cinematographer Alwin H. Küchler. The result isn’t quite as breathtaking as Alejandro González Iñárritu’s “continuous” tracking camera in last year’s Birdman, but the impact is similar; we can’t help being impressed by how everything is so precisely coordinated.

Ultimately, though, it may be too soon for this film; perhaps distance will allow it to gain in stature, as Jobs’ actual career is buried beneath ever-expanding legend. Over-exposure also is an issue, with this quasi-biopic coming on the heels of 2013’s far less accomplished Jobs, wherein Ashton Kutcher gave us an equally unlikable genius.

We’re obviously fascinated by the man ... to which I’d suggest reading Isaacson’s book. Cinematic flash aside, it seems a far more honest and even-handed depiction.

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