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Dustin Putman

Steve Jobs  (2015)
2½ Stars
Directed by Danny Boyle.
Cast: Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Seth Rogen, Jeff Daniels, Katherine Waterston, Michael Stuhlbarg, Sarah Snook, Katherine Waterston, Perla Haney-Jardine, Ripley Sobo, Makenzie Moss, John Ortiz, Vanessa Ross, Adam Shapiro.
2015 – 122 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for language).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman for, October 13, 2015.
In reimagining Walter Isaacson's best-selling biography for the screen, director Danny Boyle (2013's "Trance") and writer Aaron Sorkin (2011's "Moneyball") have been adamant "Steve Jobs" is no conventional biopic. Instead, they have sought to capture the essence of their savvy if temperamental human subject through the microcosmic lens of three of the Apple founder's product launches: the original Macintosh PC in 1984, the NeXT workstation computer in 1988, and the iMac in 1998. This storytelling conceit is structurally shrewd and compact, but also creatively contrived, encapsulating Jobs—his demanding ambition, his professional and interpersonal conflicts, his ultimate redemption—into a trio of extended snapshots, each one set on a single day in his life.

A chamber piece driven by Sorkin's fastidious, rat-a-tat dialogue, "Steve Jobs" demands attention if not one's full emotional understanding of the title character. He is portrayed as a forward-thinking visionary, a man of ideas driven by a specific cadence and ego that helped to make him the success he became. His colleagues—even those who stick by him through the years, like Head of Marketing Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet) and Apple co-founder and engineer Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen)—seem to agree with the unflattering reputation which precedes him. Granted, Jobs publicly denied paternity of daughter Lisa (played at varying ages by Makenzie Moss, Ripley Sobo and Perla Haney-Jardine) in a Time Magazine article, but as the film sees things, he remained a presence in her life and did financially support her and her mother, ex-girlfriend Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston), even as the latter clearly continued taking advantage of him. Jobs' semi-vilification throughout the bulk of the picture doesn't seamlessly match with his actions onscreen, while the pat, tidy atonement he receives during the third act lays on the maudlin manipulation to an overblown degree.

The actors exceptionally embody their non-fictional roles even as the script does not provide them with quite the depth one hopes. Michael Fassbender (2013's "The Counselor") is rarely out of frame as Steve Jobs and commands central focus as his co-stars orbit his atmosphere, speaking their mind and trying to get through to him. For a man who was prone to alienate those around him, Fassbender's riveting reading is surprisingly likable; Jobs is stubborn and set in his ways, but he never comes off as unfeeling. With brunette hair, large-lensed glasses and a subtle Polish-Armenian accent, Kate Winslet (2015's "Insurgent") effectively channels devoted right-hand woman Joanna Hoffman in style, demeanor and speech. Winslet, like Joanna, is there to service her comrade, and the platonic love she holds for Jobs, regardless of their disagreements, is touching. Unfortunately, precious little is otherwise divulged about her character's life outside of her job.

Seth Rogen (2014's "Neighbors") is an ingratiating, sincere Steve Wozniak, frustrated that his work on the Apple II series has gone unsupported by his friend and colleague while wondering why he continues to reap all the acclaim. "You're not an engineer or a designer," Wozniak tells Jobs during a heated confrontation, "so how come, ten times a day, I read, 'Steve Jobs is a genius'?" Jeff Daniels (2015's "The Martian") is superb as Apple CEO John Sculley, caught in a power struggle with Jobs that damages their relationship and leads the founder to, for a time, walk away from the company. Despite the father-daughter subplot becoming the script's most heavy-handed element, Perla Haney-Jardine (2007's "Spider-Man 3") is a standout as 19-year-old Lisa, striking achingly truthful beats even as the when, where and how of their climactic interaction rings resoundingly false.

"Steve Jobs" is a physically insular drama—the amount of exterior scenes can be counted on one hand—and it takes a generous suspension of disbelief to buy into the notion that all of these characters' crucial tête-á-têtes occur within 40-minute periods on just three days of one man's existence. In bringing generous creative license to the story they are telling, writer Aaron Sorkin and director Danny Boyle are nothing if not inspired craftsmen. Their film is less about the people involved and more about the passage of time as it relates to our technologically expanding world (a stirring prologue featuring archival footage from 1974 of an aging Arthur C. Clarke making his prophetic prediction about the evolution of home computers lingers in the mind arguably longer than much of the picture that proceeds it). Alwin H. Küchler's (2011's "Hanna") cinematography, utilizing gritty, slightly washed-out 16mm film for the 1984 section, handsome 35mm for 1988, and sleek digital for 1998, creates a free-flowing fluidity to the narrative. The calculated background appearance of a "Think Different" Apple logo at the precise moment when Jobs is urged to think differently, however, is the kind of transparent symbolism too cute for its own good. "Steve Jobs" loses its way during an aggrandizing finale that might as well come with a neon sign above Fassbender's head flashing "Feel-Good Enlightenment." If the film isn't entirely insightful on the many complex facets of the late Jobs' personality, it remains technically skillful and thematically resonant, vignettes from a time period as recent as it is startlingly obsolete.
© 2015 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman

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