Sunday, 7 February 2016

Steve Jobs (2016) - Movie Review

I hate Apple. That’s probably a statement that is both echoed frequently and also usually done as a means of drawing aggro, but I stand by it: I hate Apple. And yes, as I type this, I am also checking my emails on my iPhone, so trust me when I say that I understand the hypocrisy that can come with such a statement. From their addition to the effort of homogenizing the entire world, rivalling Starbucks in their ubiquity, to just the sheer audacity of their business model that ultimately only serves to fatten wallets and landfills in equal measure and velocity. But, that’s not to say that I’m going to let any of this filter my opinion of today’s film. I just want to reiterate a point I made back in Citizenfour, where hatred for the original subject shouldn’t translate to insta-hate on part of the film. I may have a real issue with the company that hipsters rally under like beige Lemmings, but I have enough faith in director Danny Boyle and writing legend Aaron Sorkin to portray one of its key figures in a compelling enough fashion. This is Steve Jobs.

The plot: Over a 14-year period, across three separate product launches, the film follows Apple co-founder Steve Jobs (Michael Fassbender) as he interacts with (and occasionally lashes out at) his team: Marketing executive Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), fellow co-founder Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), CEO John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), developer Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlberg) and launch manager Andy Cunningham (Sarah Snook).

I’m probably a bit late on the bandwagon on this one, but Fassbender has very quickly made his way onto my list of favourite actors working today. Thankfully, he doesn’t disappoint as this almost-Machiavellian genius, managing to nail down every bit of condescension and showing-off that he’s given. Winslet, who may not be entirely convincing in terms of accents, still plays very well off of Fassbender as Jobs’ voice of reason. Rogen is extremely good here as the underappreciated Wozniak, probably getting the best lines in a film riddled with amazing dialogue and not wasting any of them. Daniels shows off the experience he has with Sorkin dialogue, meeting Fassbender beat-for-beat in a particularly intense conversation near the middle of the film. The three actresses playing Jobs’ daughter Lisa (Makenzie Moss/Ripley Sobo/Perla Haney-Jardine) are all really good, particularly Sobo who manages to sell some heavily precocious lines about music without it coming across like she has just been given words to say that she doesn’t understand herself. However, where I give the film serious points is with Sarah Snook. After seeing so many films just flat-out wasting her talents, it is seriously good to see her not only being put to proper use but in a mainstream production as well. Honestly, I could watch an entire film involving her and Fassbender arguing over the lights on exit signs.

One of the big problems that a lot of biopics run into is a matter of framing. Usually, the subject matter for a film has a life history that, ideally, holds a lot of possibilities for plot. The problem comes in when the filmmakers can’t really decide on what parts to focus on. As a result, you end up with a film that tries to touch on everything and ends up being so scattershot that whatever main point there was in choosing said subject matter is lost. Something I give all the credit to Boyle and Sorkin for is how they chosen to frame the story of Steve Jobs: Rather than going for the overall approach, it uses the launches of three key products as its mile markers. Better still, while each act is structured more or less the same, they all have little production details that differ them from each other. No doubt, this was a chance for Boyle to flex his need for all the style. The further along the timeline we get, the less artificial grain is used on the film, not to mention the soundtrack choices that fit very well alongside the action going with analog, orchestral and electronic music for each respective act. With all of Jobs’ espousing about how we plays the orchestra in the second act, it is a rather obvious choice for the music but credit where it’s due in that it is timed especially well.

I have talked at length before about my attitude towards fact in works of fiction. I am steadfastly of the opinion that, while getting core details right is definitely ideal and can end up influencing a film’s development for the better, it shouldn’t be an absolute requirement to get everything about the subject matter right. Whether it be for artistic license, the bias of the original source material or just purely out of access to on-set materials, it would be near-impossible to create a film that is 100% true to real life. Considering this, unless I’m talking about a documentary or some other work that directly relies on the facts, I will usually barely scrape up a care for changed details. Here is where I am forced to play my hand in regards to that, as Aaron Sorkin definitely pushes artistic license as far as he can with this one. A very hefty amount of the film, including the numerous key confrontations Jobs has with other characters, are either fabricated or shifted out of place to make them have more weight within the narrative of the film. Ordinarily, my inclination to the less dogmatic approach to writing biopics would still make me question how a film can misrepresent someone as much as this film supposedly does. However, doing so would imply that I don’t want to see what the film has to offer. In what I’m sure was an intended effect of fiction being more fascinating than the truth, I honestly can’t wring out that many cares for inaccuracy here. Especially when the film does such a great job with the events it shows.

With each product marker that is used, from Macintosh to the NeXT computer to the iMac G3, we see Apple getting closer and closer to being genuinely user friendly. In a statement that I know sounds hokey when said out loud, we also see a similar arc happen with Jobs as a character. Rather than being entirely detached from socialising and even emotions at times as Sorkin treated Zuckerberg in Social Network, Jobs is shown to be a very emotionally attached person, although primarily to his own work. His arguing with Wozniak shows how he sees his computers as works of art, ones made to be used as is and not modified beyond what he sees fit to be included. He also has a very "we must move forward" attitude to his product, always looking ahead at the next innovation rather than worrying about honouring Apple's past. As much as I would love to bring up how this kind of ethos, among many other things, is precisely why I hate Apple as much as I do these days, I again give credit that his point-of-view is at least portrayed sympathetically enough in how determined he is to make his ideas work.

Whether it’s something minor like the voice function on the original Macintosh or something more sophisticated like his planning against Apple for firing him (which came as a legitimate disappointment when I found out that that didn’t happen at all), the man embodies the kind of brilliant logic that Sorkin has built his reputation on. In fact, the film almost makes fun of this brand of fictional genius (with how inaccurate the film is, he might as well be fictional) with Wozniak saying “It’s not binary; you can be decent and brilliant at the same time.” Have to admit, kind of refreshing to hear that. But, as we reach film’s end, we see how his relationship with his daughter has changed him over time, resulting in someone who we know isn’t treating people as fairly as he should but at the same time we understand his own reasons for doing so. As jolted as Jobs’ relationships with both his daughter and Chrisann (Katherine Waterston) can get at times, they are the glue that hold the film together and show that this film is far more than just clever dialogue for the sake of clever dialogue. It conveys a real emotional core, one that never betrays Jobs’ intelligence but still shows his true feelings towards his own daughter, that helps to anchor the events around it.

All in all, this isn’t really a biopic. Rather, through its rigid story structure, electric dialogue and stellar performances, it instead succeeds as a work of hyper-realism. It peppers the story that Boyle and Sorkin saw fit to tell with enough details to make it fit, but it doesn’t necessarily represent the highest truth in terms of the life of Steve Jobs. Then again, when your film looks this good, I don’t think it particularly needs to. After the initial pang of worry that resulted from sitting through Trance, I'm glad to see Danny Boyle still has the wherewithal to deliver some quality cinema.

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