Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Steve Jobs (2015)

Lisa, LISA
Another Opening, Another Show (Deconstructing Citizen Jobs)

I'll bet Steve Jobs might've wished for Aaron Sorkin to write his dialog. Hell, I wish Aaron Sorkin would write my dialog.

The film Steve Jobs—the second film on the subject since the man's death, as Hollywood always does things in pairs—is such a nicely honed dramatization distilled from Walter Issaacson's sanctioned biography, one could see why. It is not your typical biography; it does not follow the linear timeline of a life, picking and choosing events to highlight, as do many standard Hollywood bio-pics (like Ali and Hoffa). Instead, it is a perfect little construction (one could imagine it as a stage-play) that shows the private conflicts of a man at his most public—three presentation roll-outs before anticipatory crowds of the Macintosh, the NeXT cube, and the Imac G3—where the pressure on Jobs are great and the details of everything—relations, both professional and private, and the technological glitches going into those presentations—weigh heavily on the man.
Like Dickens' Scrooge, Jobs (played by Michael Fassbender) is visited at those roll-outs by the same core group of people (historically inaccurate, but this is not really a biography as much as a drama with a well-known protagonist): Joanna Hoffman (an almost unrecognizable Kate Winslet), Apple's marketing director—and winner of an award at Apple as "the person who does the best job standing up to Steve Jobs"; Andy Hertzfeld (the increasingly indispensable Michael Stuhlberg), a member of the Macintosh design team; Steve Wozniak (the best work Seth Rogen has done in years) developer of the Apple computer; John Sculley (played by Jeff Daniels, who can probably do Sorkin dialogue in his sleep by now); and Jobs' daughter by Chrissann Brennan, Lisa (portrayed by Makenzie Moss at 5, Ripley Sobo at 9, and Perla Haley-Jardine at 19) who, in Sorkin's screenplay is the catalyst for the character arc of the piece, as Jobs starts by denying his parentage and by the end, convinces himself to bend to the position of unconditional love for his daughter.
That's basically the "Pinnocchio" character arc—the inanimate being wanting to turn into a real human being, and by exploring, suffering, and some necessary self-examination realizing that goal. None of this resembles the source-biography. Instead, Sorkin has taken three pivotal moments in that evolution—coinciding with Jobs' roll-out presentations—to see how his relationships with key-players, personal and professional, has changed, revealing how the man has changed in the interim—the events leading up to those high-pressure presentations informing all in the process.
Those key players—Hoffman, Wozniak, Hertzfeld, Sculley, and Lisa—refract those changes in Jobs as he goes through his professional journey. In that way, we see Jobs through their eyes, like the witnesses in Citizen Kane, examining aspects of a complicated man who can be a bit of a cypher. It is a conceit, a construct, that has no bearing in reality to the actual events. Wozniak wasn't at the NEXT roll-out, nor was Sculley. It is doubtful that Lisa was there for any of them. But those are pivotal public presentations where Job was at his most public and naked. If they weren't there, they should have been, and that's the glory of Sorkin's screenplay. Years of conflict are squeezed into three comparable time-frames, eliminating extraneous details, side-bars, and anything that might compete with the subject at hand.* That subject being Steve Jobs.
Perhaps the better metaphor would be that, as a person, he went from his preferred "Closed System" to the more vulnerable, but more versatile "Open Source" (not that he ever embraced that philosophy for his Mac's). As with the machine, so with the man.  As "personal" as he wants to make his computers, it isn't enough (as much as he protests before the Macintosh presentation) that the things merely say "hello." That's a superficial greeting—surface stuff—but, the things themselves are impenetrable, un-customizable, one size fits all, take it or leave it, much as you had to take Jobs, prickly flaws and all. Jobs was simply Jobs and he did not adapt to the person he was talking to or dealing with (as Sorkin has it in his telling), until the ending, when the stakes couldn't be more personal, and he differentiates between persons in his manner in dealing with them. It's not so much "winning" all the time, as conceding defeat, reaching the impasse, or risking face to keep what is important.
That's all in the script. So, what does director Danny Boyle do? Pretty much, he stays out of the way and follows direction. There is the occasional directorial flourish—say, projecting an image on a wall superfluously to support a point of discussion—but those ending up being more of a distraction than help. Where he's best is in staging, color, design and pacing, the basics any director should be doing when he isn't busy (too busy) working out "look-at-me" camera moves. No, but he's as good at doing the inevitable "walk-and-talk" sequences as Tommy Schlamme is. The "West Wing" vibe is palpable in this, more than any other Sorkin project since that heralded TV series. And the acting is impeccable throughout.

Since I started working on this review, Steve Jobs has been pulled out of most of its bookings due to lack of box office performance. That's a shame. This is an imaginative, well-thought out and realized project, quite outside of what passes for Hollywood biography and, if there's some justice, it should be on a lot of year-end "Top Ten" lists.

But, then, the initial Mac didn't sell that well, either.  Sometimes, people just have to come around.

* That doesn't mean that the screenplay talks about the same exact things three different times. There is a lot of detail and and a lot of blank-filling of the events between each segment, but it all boils down to Jobs and the unique relationship he has with each person.

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