3/25/16

Steve Jobs Biopic a Mid-Range Design

STEVE JOBS (2015)
Directed by Danny Boyle
Universal Pictures, 122 minutes, R (language)
* * *

I'm typing this review of my Mac. I also own an iPhone, an iPad, and an iPod. Nonetheless, I have never have bought into iHype. For me, Mac products are just tools that are reliable and work across various platforms. I don't give a sqwanker's farley how elegant they look atop my desk or in my back pocket–I just want them to be useful hammers. In like fashion, I never thought Steve Jobs (1955-2011) was an infallible genius, so a revisionist film about him doesn't shatter my worldview.

Michael Fassbender was nominated for an Oscar for his titular role in Steve Jobs. He didn't win and shouldn't have—he did a very nice job (world play intended) but it wasn't an earth-moving performance. Nor did this film make the cosmos quake. It's perfectly competent and has some fine moments, but its major achievement is to walk up to the edge of histrionics and pull back just in time.

Steve Jobs is not a conventional biopic, rather it centers on three big moments in Jobs' career, two flops and a prodigal son return act. We first encounter Jobs as an obsessed bully moments before the 1984 launch of Macintosh. He hurls threats and insults at everyone as if these will magically get a crashed OS to say "Hello" when he introduces the first Macintosh to an audience waiting for him to deliver on the change-the-world promise of Apple's now legendary 1984 Super Bowl ad. All that changed was that Jobs didn't get to trash the profitable Apple II or get his way in a showdown with CEO John Sculley (Jeff Daniels). Instead, he got fired.

We meet Jobs again in 1988, as he prepares to debut NeXT, an almost perfect cube that had everything you'd want in a computer, except that it cost a sultan's fortune and didn't yet have a working OS. He did, however, predict Apple would have to buy NeXT for that very operating system, hence we see him for a third time in 1998 as readies the unveiling of the iMac G3, the machine that really did revolutionize personal computing. It was the moment in which Steve Jobs became Apple and Apple became Steve Jobs.  

Most of the rest of Jobs' life—the script is culled from Walter Isaacson's 2011 biography—emerges in snippets and flashbacks: the hippie-meets-libertarian days in which he, Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg), and Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogan) built the first Mac; his troubled relationships with Chrissann Brennan (Katherine Waterston) and  with their daughter, Lisa; the unconvincing denials that it bothered him that he was adopted; and the various ways in which he systematically alienated those closest to him. Jobs emerges as a flesh-and-blood analog to Mr. Data—more machine than human being. The story's tragic heroine is Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), the long-suffering advertising executive who remains faithful to Jobs, even as he is self-destructing.

If you want a saintly Steve Jobs, steer clear of this film. He comes off mainly as egoistical, oblivious, deceitful, abusive, and paternally inept. From what I glean from Isaacson, these things are largely true–Jobs was always a bit of snake oil salesman who was neither programmer nor designer, just a great pitchman for ideas implemented by others. And he really was a jerk much of the time. If, on the other hand, you're fine with needed revisionism, the film has its virtues. There are superb moments that capture the cult-like behavior of the wired, hipster crowd—the ones who do buy into iHype. Plus, there are several superior performances, especially that of Ms. Winslet, who walks the fine line between vulnerable and fierce. Seth Rogan finally gets a meaty part and proves himself worthy of it. Jeff Daniels is also solid as a CEO who knows when to charm, when to stand firm, and when to cut his losses.

Some of the biographical details are Hollywoodized. Hoffman did not carry the implied torch for Jobs; others, not Jobs, forced Sculley out of Apple; Jobs' biological father was a Syrian Ph.D. student, not a restaurateur; and Jobs' wife and other three children don't even get a mention. Moreover, the film's episodic structure compresses too much vileness into too short a time frame, which serves to make Jobs more unlikable than is fair and doesn't make plausible the reevaluation of his life we are supposed to think is on the horizon. 

I guess not everything Mac can he hyped, though. This film hasn't generated the passion of a new product launch, and has earned back just a little over half of its $30 million budget. The lack of buzz is also oddly appropriate. The film is worth watching, but think of it as more mid-range Dell than iMac G3. –Rob Weir

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