Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Steve Jobs: Design vs Utility

Biopics can be dangerously dull properties. Cradle-to-grave stories that attempt to summarize a person's life in two hours are often rushed and cursory, giving you no real sense of who the person was. Thankfully, Aaron Sorkin's script for Steve Jobs has a novel conceit that ensures you learn a lot about the man without ever getting bored.

The movie is broken into three separate acts that follow the behind the scenes machinations during three product launches at different stages in Steve Jobs' career. There's the launch of the Apple Macintosh in 1984, Steve's first attempt at building a computer at Apple. This is followed by the launch of the NeXT Computer in 1988 after Jobs was unceremoniously ousted from Apple and was trying to make it on his own as the CEO of NeXT. And as the final act, we get the 1998 launch of the iMac, after Jobs triumphantly returned as Apple's CEO and created the computer that would change the world.

Each of the three acts is filmed in real time (apart from some useful historical flashbacks), which is one of my favorite gimmicks in film or television. We do not see the product launches, as those were filmed and publicized affairs that don't need to be rehashed. Instead, we see the iconic advertisements and the lead-up to the launches, where we can watch how Jobs battles with everyone around him and how his relationships with these people morph over time. There's his right-hand woman, Joanna Hoffman (played to unsurprising perfection by Kate Winslet); his loyal and ultimately disappointed business partner, Steve Wozniak (played to surprising perfection by Seth Rogen); Apple engineer, Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg); Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston), his ex-girlfriend and mother of his estranged daughter, Lisa; and the Apple CEO who serves as a disastrous father figure, John Sculley (played by reliable Sorkin favorite, Jeff Daniels). At the heart of this character drama, Michael Fassbender is unafraid to portray Steve Jobs as an extremely flawed man. He might have some grandiloquent speeches about his vision for computing, but the passionate speeches that evoke true humanity come from Seth Rogen and Kate Winslet, as their characters strive to make Steve acknowledge what human beings really want instead of what they ought to want.

Director Danny Boyle's artistic and frenetic visual style is all over this film. While the intense dialogue and character dynamics are all Sorkin, this is a visually arresting movie that makes intriguing transitions from act to act that keep you riveted to the tale. Cinematographer Alwin Kuchler was tasked with filming each act in distinct film formats, ensuring that you feel the difference as you trip through each phase of Jobs' life and career. The score by Daniel Pemberton is perfect, moving from analog, to orchestral, to digital, to remind you that you are moving through different stages of this man's life and his outlook and priorities have shifted. As Bob Dylan plays during the end credits, you truly feel like you have weathered an emotional storm and finally found shelter.

Steve Jobs is a marvelous and engaging movie. Its portrayal of Jobs is controversial and people might be upset that it doesn't revere him as a hero. But I am more interested in its portrayal of the supporting characters, the people who were responsible for helping Jobs' vision come true. While the man was certainly a visionary and a genius, he was also a man who couldn't do it alone. The movie might be called Steve Jobs, but to me the true heroes of the piece are Hoffman and Wozniak, reminding us that the most important people are often the ones who serve behind the scenes.

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