Danny Boyle’s biopic makes elegant bid to open Jobs’s console
Michael Fassbender and Kate Winslet create all the dynamic tension required to propel Aaron Sorkin’s minimalist screenplay into epic terrain, but the film is an inspiring success and a frustrating failure at the same time — much like the man himself, writes Katherine Monk
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet. Jeff Daniels, Seth Rogen
Directed by: Danny Boyle
Running time: 122 minutes
By Katherine Monk
Closed or open? It’s the metaphor that justifies Danny Boyle’s whole, hermetic take on Steve Jobs, but it’s also the most challenging part of the movie – which means this latest take on the Apple co-founder is a frustrating success and an inspiring failure all at the same time, much like the man himself.
Designed by writer Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing, Moneyball) as three acts focused on three separate product unveilings, each one highlighting a different stage in Jobs’s life and career, the screenplay functions as a filter right off the bat – eliminating all that is inessential to reveal the bare bones of Jobs’s legacy.
As the co-founder of Apple, Jobs’s name will always be synonymous with the iconic logo and its promise of accessible knowledge. His commitment to making computing feel more human was his sole obsession, which means his entire persona is the culmination of his black turtleneck appearances before adoring crowds.
As a result, developing a movie that unveils the central character in tandem with his mysterious devices is an intellectual coup. Not only does it pull in the audience by offering a date-stamp on life events (yes, the Macintosh debuted in 1984), it reminds us how much technology, especially Jobs’ technology, has seeped into our daily lives, shaping just about every experience we encounter – from talking to our friends, to buying groceries and getting home.
Steve Jobs opens with the hope of that prophecy as the kid from suburban California launches the first Macintosh to an adoring crowd, pumped by the famous ‘1984” Super Bowl ad that aired weeks before.
Apple had been around since 1976, when Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen) and Jobs (Michael Fassbender) started working out of a garage in Los Altos. They found success with the Apple II, but Jobs wanted the Mac to be a different kind of computer: He wanted it to be closed.
No hackers, no mods, no fiddling with the slots. Jobs wanted a system that would be smart enough to be self-contained and proprietary.
For Sorkin and Boyle, Jobs’s desire to create the perfect box creates the perfect metaphor for self-control, and they play it out, sequence by sequence, looking to get inside a character who refuses to open up.
The only slot on Jobs’s console is a tiny love port, and from what we gather in the opening sequence with his ex-girlfriend Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston) it needs a special adapter.
Jobs refuses to acknowledge he’s the father of Lisa, Brennan’s child, and that gives Boyle a specialized Jobs screwdriver – and a way inside his geometrically satisfying cube of character.
There are other tools on the workbench, as well. Rogen’s skillful embodiment of co-founder Steve Wozniak allows Sorkin to air all the slags about Jobs’s inability to write code, Katherine Waterston’s Chrisann shows us how Jobs shirked his parental responsibilities and Jeff Daniels as former PepsiCo president John Sculley rides in as the surrogate father with Vader’s ability to backstab.
These tools are sharp and pointy and they’re always ready to take a stab at the central character. The only one who isn’t looking to pierce an artery is Kate Winslet as marketing executive Joanna Hoffman.
Hoffman may be the only person in the movie who isn’t obsessed with her own ego stake, so she’s able to see Jobs from a far more human perspective – and when we see things through her eyes, everything just looks sad to the point of tragic.
By contrast, when we look at the world through Fassbender’s fake brown contacts, we’re seduced by the sizzle and the hype. Jobs believed his own press and looked to solidify his legend, which makes him a tough character to embrace – but a spellbinding figure on screen.
Realizing Jobs had the dimensions of a Biblical Job and a Shakespearean Richard III, Fassbender finds creases and wrinkles in every line and gesture. Even though he looks nothing like Jobs, he feels like Jobs, especially once he dons the uniform of Levi’s, white kicks and the Issey Miyake turtle top.
It’s a strange feat of thespian magic, and it’s the reason why we go to see biopics: We want to see all the parts that feel familiar so we can find our own place in time, but we also want to see the stuff that was hidden – the secret truth of who someone really was.
Boyle’s Steve Jobs meets both expectations, but with its limited sets and narrow dramatic focus, it could leave some viewers feeling a little claustrophobic – as though they were trapped inside an elegantly crafted box struggling to be perfect, but doomed to be human.