Steve Jobs: Michael Fassbender as the iConductor

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It’s easy to forget that Danny Boyle directed Steve Jobs – at least, until you see Steve Jobs. This highly contained biopic of the late Apple co-founder and alleged techno-cultural visionary (played by Michael Fassbender) isn’t an expansive visual journey through Jobs’ many achievements. (And to be fair, we’ve got at least two other films about that part of the story, including the dire, Ashton Kutcher-starring Great Man biopic Jobs from a couple of years ago.) Rather, it’s another of screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s smart, chatty chamber pieces. Boyle, on the other hand, the director of such films as Trainspotting and Slumdog Millionaire, revels in montages and music and stylization; those less generous to his oeuvre might even call his films glorified music videos. What’s he doing here? Quite a lot, it turns out.

Sorkin’s script is structured pretty much entirely around the backstage conversations before three of Jobs’ most notable product launches: the 1984 unveiling of the Macintosh, the 1988 launch of the ill-fated educational computer company NeXT, and his triumphant 1998 introduction of the first iMacs after his return to Apple. Each section of the film brings out the same characters to track Jobs’ conflicts in business, technology and life: his resolute marketing head Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet); affable Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen); onetime Apple CEO John Sculley (Jeff Daniels); and neglected daughter Lisa (played by Perla Haney-Jardine, Ripley Sobo and Makenzie Moss), whose paternity he originally denies.

Onstage, this kind of highly structured and insular approach would be fairly standard, even schematic. On film, it could come across as, well, stagy. But Boyle does something surprising with Sorkin’s endless cascades of dialogue: He turns them into music. There’s an internal rhythm to Steve Jobs – to the restless back-and-forth, to the free flow of accusations and protestations and duplicities — that’s toe-tappingly infectious. You could watch this movie over and over again just to revel in the musicality of these voices and words. (There’s a score, too, by Daniel Pemberton, but it undulates, muted, in the background — laying down a mood so that the real notes, the words, can take the stage.)

A musical motif goes with the musical style. Each section of the film is presided over by a different musical metaphor. The first part sees Jobs mulling over the right Bob Dylan lyric to frame his talk. The second contains a discussion about what a conductor does. (“Musicians play their instruments. I play the orchestra.”) The third features an argument between Wozniak and Jobs about which of them is John Lennon, and about what it was that made Lennon who he was. Lyrics, instruments, personality. Content, form, affect. The cavernous film works its way from the inside out, and it’s perhaps understandable that the final scene, on a rooftop, is the only one that’s set outdoors.

Something else is going on here, too, and it has to do with the nature of the man at the heart of this film. That Jobs was mercurial, ruthless and often pathologically uncaring is old news at this point: He neglects his daughter, he disrespects his engineers, he backstabs his business partners. The film doesn’t offer any great new revelations to his personality, though it does offer him opportunities for self-reflection and even, briefly, right at the end, redemption. “I’m made poorly,” Jobs says at one point, and the film presents a tantalizing question as it swirls around all these various product designs and launches. Steve Jobs wanted to create the illusion of friendliness and humanity in a computer. But maybe, at the heart of all his efforts, was an attempt to create such an illusion of himself. And maybe, in the way it works itself from his nasty soul to one final smile, this film is part of the illusion.

Categories: A&E, Art