Steve Jobs movie review: insanely great (LFF 2015)

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Steve Jobs green light

You’ve never seen such a compelling, entertaining movie about a genius jerk. As smart and as sleek as a Macbook Pro, and a compulsory bit of modern history.
I’m “biast” (pro): love the cast and Danny Boyle; huge Mac devotee

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

I have not read the source material

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

Steve Jobs: Genius. Visionary. Asshole. Steve Jobs is not a traditional biography of the Apple founder and, after it went off the rails in the late 1980s and early 90s, its returning hero and savior. We don’t peek in on his childhood, or on the battle with pancreatic cancer that he eventually lost. This is much narrower, the tale of how one man revolutionized the computer industry and as a result, you know, changed the world. Jobs wasn’t an engineer or a programmer; Jobs did what he did, to borrow one of the film’s favorite metaphors, by being the conductor of an orchestra of engineers and programmers. Through sheer force of personality. And as depicted here, that personality was mainly Breathtakingly Narcissistic Jerk, all raging arrogance massively overcompensating for past rejection. But also a personality of dazzling brilliance and foresight and imagination.

You’ve never seen such a compelling and entertaining and insightful movie about a genius jerk. Ever. Steve Jobs is as smart and as sleek and as essential as… well, as the unibody aluminum Macbook Pro I composed this review on. And it’s funny in that snarky, let’s-change-the-world-while-we-walk-and-talk Aaron Sorkin way. (If you are not a fan of Sorkin, Steve Jobs may not be your cup of tea. Though I honestly don’t understand anyone who isn’t a Sorkin fan; who else writes screwball dramedies about politics or technology or journalism anymore? Who ever did?) Sorkin (Moneyball, The Social Network) has adapted Walter Isaacson’s biography of Jobs in a way that only Sorkin would: by showing us an insider’s perspective on a very public endeavor, in this case, that of Apple during its most tumultuous period, between 1984 and 1998.

We meet Jobs (beautifully embodied by Michael Fassbender [Slow West, X-Men: Days of Future Past], who doesn’t much look like Jobs yet manages to be eerie in the impersonation anyway) and become immersed in his unique view on the world during the last-minute, behind-the-scenes preparations at three essential Jobs-Apple moments: the 1984 launch of the Macintosh, the 1988 launch of Next computer (which he founded after he was booted from Apple yet which became part of his long-game Macintosh plan), and the 1998 launch of the iMac. Here are the moments before the moments many of us are familiar with (probably most especially the 1998 one, by when Jobs had morphed into the now-iconically black-turtlenecked figure introducing to us the latest techno-doodad we’d soon discover we couldn’t live without). These moments aren’t true in the factual sense — there cannot have been this much interpersonal drama backstage — but they are true in the larger sense of how they craft an intimate study of what drove the man, and how that manifested itself in ways that have changed how we live today. (It’s stunning to realize that even the most recent segment in the film is set almost 20 years ago, and how much has changed since then, how the Internet and constant connectivity have radically altered our culture.)

Steve Jobs is almost a stage play, except that virtuoso director Danny Boyle (Trance, Slumdog Millionaire) renders it all so cinematically that it could never be mistaken for one; Boyle uses, for instance, his return to real Jobs locations, such as the San Francisco opera house for the Next launch, to glorious effect, letting them make marvelous statements on the outsizedness of Jobs and the mad beauty of Jobs’s vision. But there’s a stage-intimacy to how we eavesdrop on the interactions between Jobs and a small handful of people before each event: his head of marketing and best platonic friend Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet: A Little Chaos, Insurgent), who moves with him from Apple to Next and back to Apple again; John Scully (Jeff Daniels: The Martian, Howl), the CEO of Apple who forced Jobs out before he was himself forced out; founding Apple engineer Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen: 22 Jump Street, Neighbors); Apple engineer Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg: Seven Psychopaths, Men in Black III); and Jobs’s daughter, Lisa (played, respectively, at ages 5, 9, and 19 by Makenzie Moss, Ripley Sobo [Ricki and the Flash, Winter’s Tale], and Perla Haney-Jardine [Spider-Man 3, Dark Water]) and her mother, Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston: Night Moves, Taking Woodstock), with whom Jobs had a contentious coparental relationship (they were no longer romantic partners by the time Lisa was born).

Much of what we overhear relates to engineering and marketing and corporate governance, and Sorkin and Boyle do not hold our hands through it. We get it anyway — we get how Jobs is constantly forcing his own unique path through the conventional ways of doing things, how Jobs’s idea of what computers should be offering the masses of ordinary people (as opposed to the tiny minority of hobbyists) does not mesh with the profit motive (although it might have if anyone could have seen beyond the next quarter). Much of the rest of it relates to what a horrible shit he was to his daughter and her mother, yet this aspect never descends into a cheap narrative ploy meant to merely underscore that even smart people who changed the world for the better can sometimes be very stupid and cruel (though of course it does do that, too). Instead, it wraps the family side of Jobs’s life up with the work side, shows us how they complement and feed off each other, for better and for worse: it’s the same impulses driving everything he does. Which is perfectly understandable. Yet I can’t recall a film that so beautifully gets right the complicated yet still creative mess that one person’s life can be. Or that manages it in such a deeply satisfying way.

And then there’s this: all of what we witness has a certain impact only via what we bring with us into the movie. Steve Jobs assumes that we understand how important Jobs was to how we live today. It assumes that we have a long and intimate relationship with the Mac and with Apple products such as the iPod and the iPhone, or with the various non-Apple products that have raced to catch up with their innovations. (I certainly have a such a relationship. The Mac has accompanied me through my entire adult life, almost my entire creative life, from the first time I used a Mac Classic at the New York University library to produce a fanzine to the Macbook Pro I write on and produce a web site on today. The computer that is, without exaggeration, an extension of my brain and without which I would feel lost.) It is impossible to overstate the impact of the 1984 Orwell-themed TV ad that hinted at the introduction of the very first Mac in 1984, which ran only once, during the Super Bowl that year, but which has lived on as a piece of computing and advertising history; and though the film shows us that ad during the course of the rehearsal for the 1984 launch event, Steve Jobs makes no attempt to explain that impact beyond the splash it made as a piece of clever filmmaking (it was directed by Ridley Scott, and it shows). Likewise, during the rehearsal for the 1998 iMac launch, there’s no meta hint of what is to come via this machine… yet when Jobs here practice-pulls the black cloth off the thing and reveals that playfully colorful and friendly computer, no one who has had a relationship with the Mac, or who can recall what life was like before cheap, intuitive home computers and fast, always-on Internet access, can fail to get a visceral thrill from a sudden realization of the speed with which we are living through history.

None of that is in the film, and yet it is there all the same. There is nothing in Steve Jobs that is mythologizing of the man, and nothing in the film that is about the cult of the Mac. And yet it is all about how that happened anyway. If history is all about finding the roots of the present in the past, then this is one of the more compulsory bits of modern history I’ve ever seen.

viewed during the 59th BFI London Film Festival

See also my #WhereAreTheWomen rating of Steve Jobs for its representation of girls and women.

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Mon, Oct 19, 2015 5:17pm

Aaron Sorkin is a stickler for grammar; there were whole B-plots about word usage on Sports Night and The West Wing. So it was really funny to hear him react to the “Think different” ad. It must have driven him crazy every time he saw it. One of the characters goes into a rant about it near the end of the movie, and it’s hilarious.

Mon, Oct 19, 2015 5:34pm

Great review. I saw Steve a Jobs yesterday, and you know a film is great when you are still thinking about it 24hrs later. Any Oscar talk about Fassbender is spot on!

Jess Haskins
Jess Haskins
Tue, Oct 20, 2015 2:05pm

Thanks for the review. I wasn’t paying much attention to this movie before, but now it seems like a must-see. (And I am a huge Sorkin fan.)

Tue, Oct 20, 2015 4:10pm

So this is based on a book(written when?) of the same name. What as that other movie that came out recently based on? I ask because I hate movies that are titled just with someones name. It bothers me. Not sure why.
Did we used to get biographical movies so soon after someone dies, or has it always been this way? Everything feels like it moves at the speed of light nowadays.

I had zero interest in this, like most bio movies, but you make it sound pretty great. Maybe when it eventually pops up on Netflix.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  MarkyD
Tue, Oct 20, 2015 4:57pm

You’re probably thinking of 2013’s Jobs, starring Ashton Kutcher, which is not based on the Isaacson bio (published October 2011). Noah Wyle also played Jobs in the 1999 TV movie Pirates of Silicon Valley, which was based on a different book.

All this info is readily available online, by the way. :-) That’s part of why I link to sites like the IMDb and Amazon, so you can find more info about a film.

reply to  MarkyD
Tue, Oct 20, 2015 6:07pm

Did we used to get biographical movies so soon after someone dies

I think we always get biographical films covering a range of subjects, from people who died long ago to people still living. In 2014 we got movies about Alan Turing, Martin Luther King, and Houdini (died decades ago), as well as Stephen Hawking and Brian Wilson (still alive). This year we got movies about Stanley Milgram and the suffragettes (died a while back), Steve Jobs (died more recently), and the members of NWA (some still alive).

Steve Jobs died 4 years ago, which doesn’t feel “so soon” to me. Maybe it’s because he’s had such an impact on society, and continues to feel so relevant, that it feels like he just died the other day. But I don’t have a problem with films dealing even with recently-dead or still-living people who’ve done interesting or important things (Sorkin also wrote The Social Network, and Mark Zuckerberg is still alive). If the film tells an interesting story, what does it matter when or whether the subject died?

reply to  Bluejay
Tue, Oct 20, 2015 7:29pm

I have an issue with any kind of “based on a true story” movie, but bios especially irk me. I think it’s because they center on one person when very few people have ever truly made it on their own. They downplay the accomplishments of all others involved. Well, the titles do, anyway. I certainly haven’t seen every movie.
“True Story” movies bother me because I am skeptical that I am truly seeing the real story. I figure I’m being lied to for the sake of hollywood entertainment. I’d rather just watch a fiction tale, and not have to think about that.

As for your final question, I really can’t explain why it’s an issue with me. TSN was a good movie, but I had the same issue with that in regards to being made so soon. The story is still being written!

I realize these are personal issues, so I don’t expect anyone to relate. I probably should have just kept them to myself.

reply to  MarkyD
Tue, Oct 20, 2015 9:00pm

Hey, I have no problem with you sharing your issues. But since this is a discussion forum, I hope you’re okay with them being discussed. :-)

I figure I’m being lied to for the sake of hollywood entertainment.

Is it always a lie, or can it sometimes be poetic license to get at a larger truth? (See what MaryAnn says in the review about moments that “aren’t true in the factual sense” but are “true in the larger sense”).

The story is still being written!

Sure, and we’re getting *this* piece of the story *now.* That doesn’t mean there can’t be a different, more retrospective story, with a different perspective, in the future.

reply to  Bluejay
Thu, Oct 22, 2015 1:43pm

No, I’m all for discussion, which is why I posted in the first place.

I don’t think any of us can deny that everything moves at a much faster pace than it used to. The internet, and our “always connected” culture, has led to this. So, naturally, movies about people and events, are going to be made much sooner after the event, or the magnificent life, occurs.

It all just feels like exploitation to me, instead of anyone truly caring about the material, and wanting to tell a good tale.

I’m happy to hear that this movie is an exception.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  MarkyD
Thu, Oct 22, 2015 10:40am

They downplay the accomplishments of all others involved.

This movie actively confronts that issue.

reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Thu, Oct 22, 2015 1:32pm

Good to hear. Another reason to see it.