Thursday, November 12, 2015

STEVE JOBS

The late, great Dean Martin coined that immortal phrase - "it's his world, we're just living in it" - when speaking of Frank Sinatra. But it applies as well to quite a lot of other figures - like the late Steve Jobs and the way he ruthlessly led Apple to rule the world with the company's trademark combination of ease of use, style and technology.

     In the case of Danny Boyle's film, though, it's clear very early on that this is actually playwright and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin's world, and everyone else - Jobs included - is living in it. There may be a tony cast and crew of award-winners, even the faintest whiff of Oscar bait, yet no matter: this is Sorkinland, that breathless territory of rapid-fire staccato dialogue set on a perpetual-motion machine, keeping plot, character and theme churning along forward at a dizzying pace. It may sound like a holdover from a long-standing tradition of New York play-writing that I'm sure Mr. Sorkin sees himself upholding valiantly in the philistine days of CGI and writers' tables. But the net effect of his virtuoso word games is to create its own reality distortion field meant to bring us closer to the emotional essence of the characters in the story he is telling.

     There is an irony at work here: Mr. Sorkin is creating a "reality distortion field" for a character who was, by all accounts, expert at it - the difference being that Steve Jobs isn't so much a conventional biography film, rather a drama inspired by factual events lifted from the acclaimed authorised book biography by Walter Isaacson. Jobs' iconic stature in the business and technology worlds means therefore the level of scrutiny the film is being held to is entirely different from what would normally be expected, especially after the middling reception afforded to Joshua Michael Stern's more conventionally structured 2013 biopic.

     Steve Jobs could be filmed theatre - it is a three-act story, told entirely indoors, with a very small cast of characters recurring over three different moments in the life of Jobs. But Mr. Sorkin's sharp, always on-the-move writing avoids the classic expository issues, much helped by Mr. Boyle's handling, equally dynamic (but much more restrained than usual). This is central and important: it means neither man wanted this to be just a "screen play", but a film where the camera follows the dialogue and the character and lets it dictate its shape. (In many ways, I found myself thinking this was what Alejandro González Iñárritu aimed for with Birdman and failed to do.)

     That said, Mr. Boyle isn't a clinical, precise director, so Steve Jobs pretty much steamrolls forward, with panache, verve and the occasional wit, keeping close tabs on Jobs and his closest confidantes through three different backstage areas: the original 1984 Macintosh launch event, the 1988 unveiling of the ill-fated NeXT machine and the 1998 presentation of the bright-blue iMac. The film never stops to think - it thinks on its feet, the yin-yang dynamics of Michael Fassbender's alpha-male, obsessive Jobs and Kate Winslet as marketing right-hand and general voice of reason Joanna Hoffman powering the story through.

     For all that, there is genuine heart in the central concept of Jobs the man as a "work in progress", an insecure bully looking to leave his mark in the world against all comers, stymied until a sort of breakthrough leads him to finally ease off with the Bondi-Blue translucence that started Apple's second coming. Mr. Fassbender's performance and Mr. Sorkin's writing suggest a man coming into his own as he gradually learns to stop condescending to those around him, or to see all who approach as enemies in a zero-sum game that Seth Rogen's Steve Wozniak disarms in the film's key line: "You can be decent and gifted at the same time".

     Much has been made of Steve Jobs' use of the protracted fights with girlfriend Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston) over the recognition of his daughter Lisa as a plot device - it's an episode pretty much everyone regards as not one of the man's finest hours. But, by making the viewer aware of the flaws, Messrs. Boyle and Sorkin bring into sharper relief the humanity of a man too many seem reluctant to grant him, make Jobs less of a cypher or of a visionary, more of a human being. By bringing him into his world, the writer allows us to understand better why is it that Steve Jobs' world is still all around us.

STEVE JOBS
US, UK, Japan, 2015, 122 minutes
Starring Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Seth Rogen, Jeff Daniels, Michael Stuhlbarg, Katherine Waterston, John Ortiz
Directed by Danny Boyle; screenplay by Aaron Sorkin; based on the book Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson; cinematographer Alwin Küchler (widescreen); music by Daniel Pemberton; production designer Guy Hendrix Dyas; costume designer Suttirat Larlarb; film editor Elliot Graham; produced by Mark Gordon, Guymon Casady, Scott Rudin, Mr. Boyle and Christian Colson, for Universal Pictures, Legendary Pictures, Scott Rudin Productions, Entertainment 360, The Mark Gordon Company, Decibel Films and Cloud Eight Films in association with Dentsu/Fuji Television Network
Screened November 4th 2015, NOS Alvaláxia 1, Lisbon, distributor press screening


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