New York Film Fest Review: “Steve Jobs”

JobsPosterDirector: Danny Boyle
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Jeff Daniels, Seth Rogen, Michael Stuhlbarg
Running Time: 122mins.
Universal Pictures

Our Score: 4.5 out of 5 stars

No one removes a limb nor falls in a pit beneath an Indian outhouse in Danny Boyle’s new awards-season biopic Steve Jobs, but I do suspect many people will accuse it of dragging the late Apple CEO through the mud. Working from a fast-paced script by Aaron Sorkin (aren’t they always?), the film pulls no punches when it comes to Jobs’ pseudo-Machiavellian pursuit of his Mac computer. Unlike Sorkin’s previous computer-minded outing, The Social Network, Steve Jobs feels even harsher for the span of time in which we’re tuning in. We stay with Mr. Jobs’s and his collateral damage, the loved ones and colleagues frequently left floundering in his wake, over the course of fourteen years and three epic product launches. It pits Jobs’s minor launch glitches against far greater interpersonal struggles and the suspense lies in what will finally warrant his attention. The small acting ensemble revolving around Michael Fassbender’s fierce portrayal of Jobs–including Kate Winslet, Seth Rogen, Jeff Daniels and Michael Stuhlberg–ensures that it’s a fair fight. In this highly focused fashion, Boyle has delivered not the complete biography of Jobs, but an energetic strong impression of the man behind the curtain. And the iPod.

The three ‘acts’ that occupy the real-time action of Boyle’s film see Jobs as he successfully launches Macintosh, then outside of Apple with the disastrous NeXTCube and as the prodigal son returning with 1998’s iMac. To see the launches go off without a hitch is Jobs’s goal but through Boyle and Sorkin’s film, Steve’s launch is like a juggling act where more balls keep getting thrown into play. The major crisis with the first Macintosh is that Andy Hertzfeld (Stuhlbarg) can’t get the demo computer to say ‘hello.’ And Steve is much scarier than Yoda in the “there is no try” department. Hovering on the sidelines of the epic hello struggle is Joanna Hoffman (Winslet), Apple marketing guru and the only person able to wrangle Steve’s attention for any quantifiable amount of time. She doesn’t see why the computer must say hello, oh and also Steve should do something about his daughter and her mother waiting for Steve in the wings. The daughter he’s so publicly denied fathering, and half blames for his losing Time Magazine’s Man of the Year title. Priorities. Meanwhile Steve Wozniak (a deeply touching Rogen) just wants Steve Jobs to say thank you to the Apple 2 guys, an earlier model that the company thrived on. And for good measure, a stoic Jeff Daniels as exec John Scully steps in to remind Steve of his own parental issues (he was adopted) at exactly the wrong times.
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These basic components are tossed in and out of focus over the course of the launches, with Boyle slyly throwing in the occasional additional flashbacks in time to further flesh out Steve’s relationships–especially with Wozniak and Scully. As a fiery Fassbender plays young Jobs, it’s easy to see how he sold his team of people on going on these technological ventures under his leadership. Important for us to see considering present-Jobs can so often be despicable. Jobs’s chief struggle in most of his interactions, whether he admits it or not, is with common human decency. Long-suffering Wozniak seeks only acknowledgment while Joanna is frequently going to bat on behalf of Jobs’s daughter Lisa since her mother (Katherine Waterston in a small but effective part) is drifting further away. In this core struggle, Winslet emerges as the film’s heart when its protagonist doesn’t have time for his. In Joanna, Winslet is both fearless and vulnerable. She knows Steve the best, she’s knows she’s too valuable to his enterprise to be cast off and she uses this to stand her ground. If audiences find it hard to root for Steve as he is ruthlessly scripted by Sorkin, they will definitely side with Joanna who only wants Steve to be a better person. It’s clever and Winslet is no doubt as awards-worthy as Fassbender is in this film.

Boyle and Sorkin shy away from actually showing their version of one of Jobs’s epic announcements–we have youtube for that–but at every juncture the Mac masses are omnipresent. We see stamping feet and full theater lobbies of faceless groupies which only serve to amplify Steve’s power in these spaces. While other realms of Jobs’s life were out of his control, at least at these launches every minute detail could be dictated by him. To situate the whole story around these launches is to show Jobs at his most intense. The resulting film is a vibrant, unsympathetic portrait of a man whose work continues to evolve how humans connect with each other whether or not he ever mastered that skill in his own life.
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I saw Steve Jobs at this year’s New York Film Fest, the film receives its nationwide release on October 23rd.

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