Review: ‘Steve Jobs,’ Apple’s Visionary C.E.O. Dissected


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Michael Fassbender in “Steve Jobs,” directed by Danny Boyle.

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Universal Pictures

“Who are you? What do you do?”

Those questions, put to Steve Jobs by his erstwhile partner Steve Wozniak in the middle of a heated argument, are both practical and rhetorical. Jobs is not a designer, an engineer or a coder — he relies on other people to do all of that, among them his “little buddy” Woz — but he has somehow risen to the top of the computer business. That doesn’t quite seem fair.

The fact that Jobs, the co-founder of Apple, in the course of his rise, has betrayed his friends, alienated his allies and mistreated his loved ones challenges some deeply cherished myths about the correlation between virtue and success. Jobs’s behavior also confirms equally deep assumptions about the ultimate virtue of ruthlessness in the capitalist economy. He’s heroic and despicable. He inspires loyalty and resentment, often from the same people. A cold rationalist who is certain he knows what the public wants, Jobs remains a mystery to those who know him best, and a brilliant, steely-eyed enigma at the center of the new movie that bears his name.

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Trailer: ‘Steve Jobs’

A preview of the film.


By UNIVERSAL PICTURES on Publish Date September 27, 2015.


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Steve Jobs,” directed by Danny Boyle from a script by Aaron Sorkin, isn’t the first such movie, of course. Since his death in 2011, the Jobs cult of personality has spawned, among other products, a prior biopic (starring Ashton Kutcher), a documentary (directed by the prolific Alex Gibney) and two prominent biographies. The first of these, authorized by Jobs himself and written by Walter Isaacson, is the credited source of Mr. Sorkin’s screenplay, and the film, though it takes the usual liberties with facts and characters, basically upholds the book’s account — disputed by some members of Jobs’s family and by some executives at Apple — of Jobs’s temperament, his foibles and his talent.

The accuracy of this portrait is not my concern. Cinematic biographies of the famous are not documentaries. They are allegories: narrative vessels into which meanings and morals are packed like raisins in an oatmeal cookie; modern, secular equivalents of medieval lives of the saints; cautionary tales and beacons of aspiration. “Steve Jobs” is a rich and potent document of the times, an expression of both the awe that attends sophisticated new consumer goods and the unease that trails in the wake of their arrival. The movie burnishes the image of this visionary C.E.O. even as it tries to peek behind the curtain at the gimcrack machinery of omnipotence. Mostly, though, it is a formally audacious, intellectually energized entertainment, a powerful challenge to the lazy conventions of Hollywood storytelling and a feast for connoisseurs of contemporary screen acting. Michael Fassbender is in it. Kate Winslet and Jeff Daniels, too. Also Seth Rogen and Michael Stuhlbarg. They are all, as you might expect, really good. That should be enough.

But of course there’s more. Jobs was a minimalist and a control freak, a proponent of closed systems, streamlined construction and conceptual simplicity. Mr. Boyle and Mr. Sorkin, in contrast, are fervent maximalists, prone, respectively, to busy, breakneck visual effects and roiling torrents of verbiage. The collision of their styles is fascinating and sometimes disorienting to watch. The usual Sorkinian rhythms — walk and talk; stand and shout; quip and parry — are sped up and syncopated by Mr. Boyle’s tireless kineticism.

At times the camera seems agitated to the point of distraction because it’s trapped in a movie that consists almost entirely of rushed conversations in enclosed spaces. But this antsiness helps create an atmosphere of nervous, almost absurd suspense. (Daniel Pemberton’s score contributes a lot to this feeling). You hold your breath waiting to see what’s going to happen, even though you know exactly what is in store. A guy is going to come out onstage and show you a new gadget. Maybe one you bought when you were younger and got rid of a long time ago.

The best thing about “Steve Jobs,” the thing that makes it work as both tribute and critique, is how messy it is. It sprawls, it sags, it grinds its gears and at times almost crashes from frantic multitasking. And yet the result is not chaos but coherence. Rejecting both linear chronology and the frame-and-flashback template of most movie biographies, Mr. Sorkin concentrates on three crucial moments in Jobs’s career. Though there are a few glances into the past, most of the action unfolds in the anxious minutes leading up to a product launch. The products are not the newest, the most successful or the best known. And the man presenting them is sometimes a clean-shaven yuppie in a bow tie and a double-breasted blazer, rather than the bestubbled, mock-turtlenecked guru we think we remember.

We first meet Jobs (Mr. Fassbender) in Cupertino, Calif., in 1984, as he prepares to show the world the first Macintosh personal computer. Five years later, having been forced out of Apple, he is in San Francisco to introduce NeXT, an expensive computer aimed at the educational market. Finally, having returned to Apple, he rolls out the iMac. Everything else — the laptops, cellphones, tablets and MP3 players, the retail stores and subscription services — is still on the horizon.

Each chapter is built around a series of encounters with the same handful of people. His near-constant companion is Joanna Hoffman (Ms. Winslet), a marketing executive who describes herself at one point as Jobs’s “work wife.” A scant presence in Mr. Isaacson’s book, Hoffman is the film’s most obviously Sorkinesque figure, a cousin to Allison Janney’s C. J. Cregg on “The West Wing” and Emily Mortimer’s MacKenzie McHale on “The Newsroom.” Unswervingly devoted to her boss, she is his screwball sparring partner and the manager of his ego. Her ambition is tethered to his, her intelligence the polished mirror of his incandescent brilliance.

Hoffman is a facilitator and explicator of drama, rather than a dramatic principal. Jobs’s foils are Wozniak (Mr. Rogen) — the Fozzie Bear to his Kermit — and John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), who came from Pepsi to Apple and serves as Jobs’s link to the corporate world. Woz is a beloved, rivalrous sibling and Sculley a surrogate father, but Jobs continually denies the psychological complexities of the relationships, insisting that it’s all about business.

When it comes to his daughter Lisa (played successively, and beautifully, by Makenzie Moss, Ripley Sobo and Perla Haney-Jardine), he tries at first to deny his paternity altogether. Lisa’s mother, Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston), is portrayed as needy and unstable, while Lisa herself is, so to speak, an apple that fell close to the paternal tree. She is not in the movie to humanize him — Jobs’s wife and other children are not in the movie at all — but rather to help us measure, by means of a dramatically necessary shorthand, just how complicated he is.

In his script for “The Social Network,” David Fincher’s brooding fantasia about Mark Zuckerberg and the founding of Facebook, Mr. Sorkin simplified the protagonist, locating the supposed source of Zuckerberg’s inspiration in romantic frustration and status anxiety. “Steve Jobs,” a less perfect movie, is nonetheless a more credible character study, and it leaves behind a fascinating residue of ambivalence.

Jobs’s vision of computing for the masses — not just he calls the “hackers and hobbyists” who dominated the market in the ’80s — was at once democratic and totalitarian. His understanding of human desires, of consumers as well as co-workers, was both empathetic and chillingly instrumental. “Steve Jobs” is a creation myth written by a skeptic. Whether or not we worship Steve Jobs, the world most of us live in is the one he made.

“Steve Jobs” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). Grown-up Aaron Sorkin dialogue: crisp, sour, rotten and delicious.



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