Sunday, November 29, 2015

Steve Jobs

There's a significant amount of discussion given to the 'reality distortion field' in the latest exhuming of Steve Jobs.  The term points to the Apple magnate's reported skill in bending the boundaries of the real for those in his employ.  He was said to have had the charisma, the intellect, the presence to convince others - even while being a merciless asshole - that the impossible was within reach, that deadlines could be achieved, and sometimes, that he had a product worth selling even when it was more of an incomplete concept.  Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network, The West Wing) lends his brand of quick witted, layered banter to Jobs and those who suffered him.  Sorkin's dialogue makes sense here, but revels in its constructed nature.  From the mouth of Michael Fassbender's Steve Jobs, it plays like a believable fiction. Realism, maybe, but only because we want to believe in the rapid-fire acts of creation and destruction of a compelling figure like Jobs.  While at times performer and writer manage to harness the charisma required for us to believe in something like the reality distortion field, the film largely loses track of that, mostly revealing the legend for what he was: a hyper-focused, one-track minded, self-centered control freak in it for the long con.  

What's most surprising about Steve Jobs is not its take on the real life figure or the fact that it seems to offer the possibility of forgiveness in the closing sequence - almost a given in something that gets close to a biopic - but is instead the film's structure.  This is a story in only three acts, each of them centered around the release of a particular product.  The first is the 1984 unveiling of the Macintosh, the second the introduction of the NeXT computer during Jobs's 1988 hiatus, and finally a leap forward to the 1998 iMac launch and Jobs's successful return to Apple.  The formal elements are perhaps where we see director Danny Boyle's presence most clearly.  Each act is shot and scored differently, the march of technology present at a visual level most will never even notice.

I note this because it's this sort of weirdness that makes Steve Jobs a rather bizarre version of the biopic model.  For as much as it seems to go through the motions on its larger emotional arcs, its lack of interest in giving Steve Jobs a defined life pre-1984 or post-1998 is abundantly clear.  We never really go to Apple corporate, we rarely leave darkened auditoriums or back hallways.  Instead, his life can only come to him.  People wait, people show up, people are called for, but Steve Jobs remains the demanding, barely moving center.  We meet the daughter he doesn't want to claim as his own at several stages in her life, see the difference between him and Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), watch him shove around collaborator Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg), and reckon, constantly with marketing master and personal wrangler Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet).  These 'characters' become circling, bodied representations of the conscious-voice Jobs seems to be missing - all brilliantly acted even when given minimal screen time.  What Steve Jobs becomes is a portrait of a life spent in a series of waiting rooms, stripped of many of its complications, but made elegant and clean by its structural constraints.  It is alive, entertaining, and economical in its approach, though perhaps empty by other standards.  There are connections to be made, perhaps, to some of the products made and discussed during the runtime of the film itself.  Genius on the surface, better in some areas, problematic in others, designed brilliantly - yes - but maybe not exactly functional when you begin to examine the whole.

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