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Review: Steve Jobs (2015)

Steve Jobs (2015)

Directed by: Danny Boyle 

Premise: A biographical drama of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs. The film takes place backstage at the product launches of three devices: the Macintosh in 1984, the NeXT Computer in 1988, and the iMac in 1998.

What Works: The biopic is a popular genre in Hollywood. It usually comes with a topic that is familiar to audiences and therefore easily sellable, it has the allure (or illusion) of a factual basis, and these films are often prestige projects for studios and filmmakers. Steve Jobs checks all of those boxes but this particular film is distinguished from the average biographical drama. The filmmakers take a novel and highly cinematic approach to their subject. In many respects, the script of Steve Jobs is structured like a stage play. The movie is near constant dialogue that takes place in a constricted area but the filmmakers present these conversations with a fluid camera, use non-diegetic inserts, and cut away to previous events. Rather than telling a traditional cradle-to-grave biographical story, Steve Jobs is divided into three specific sections and they all take place behind the scenes of important product launches. The filmmakers use slightly different filmmaking approaches in each segment. For instance, each portion is shot on different film stocks to reflect the different time periods. The 1984 chapter is shot on 16mm film, giving it a gritty, low-fi look. The 1988 segment is filmed on 35mm stock, giving it the look of Hollywood films of that time, and the final chapter was shot digitally, giving it the sheen of contemporary media. In each segment the title character deals with crises and interacts with several specific characters, namely Chisann Brennan and their daughter Lisa, his assistant Joanna Hoffman, and Apple personnel Steve Wozniak, Andy Hertzfeld, and John Sculley. The performances by the core cast are excellent, but especially Michael Fassbender as Steve Jobs. The movie requires the actor to be terrible to everyone while still being an engaging protagonist and Fassbender accomplishes that. Through these interpersonal relationships the movie peels back the layers of a complicated individual and Steve Jobs does a better job of distilling who this man was than any other dramatic feature about him.

What Doesn’t: Steve Jobs was written by Aaron Sorkin, the screenwriter of movies like Moneyball and The Social Network and the television show The West Wing. Sorkin is known for his snappy dialogue and that is both his greatest strength and a critical weakness. Sorkin’s banter is fun but it can also come across distractingly pleased with itself. Sorkin also, by his own admission, resists creating bad guys. In real life Steve Jobs was brilliant and horrible but this movie backpedals his negative traits in the last segment. The movie goes soft and opts for a closed and redemptive resolution that is oversimplified and disingenuous. Jobs has been the subject of several documentaries and dramatizations. This particular film is distinguished from others but it comes with an important caveat. The movie assumes that viewers know something about Jobs’ biography and his stormy relationship with his friends, coworkers, and family. Given the glut of movies about Jobs’ life this is a smart choice and Steve Jobs fulfills its purpose as a biographical drama. However, those who are unfamiliar with Jobs’ biography may be lost in the story. The other consequences of the storytelling design of this film is that it does not really tell the viewer what Steve Jobs did or why he was important to the advancement of technology. In that respect, this Steve Jobs film would make an excellent double feature with Alex Gibney’s documentary Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine.

Bottom Line: Steve Jobs is a well-made and ambitiously mounted biographical story. The picture has terrific performances and a breathless pace and the filmmaking style and unique narrative structure are innovative and experimental in ways that are appropriate to its subject.

Episode: #567 (November 1, 2015)