Technology, spectacle, and disconnection in ‘Steve Jobs’

Steve Jobs is in Australian cinemas now.

If one considered the idea of a biopic of Steve Jobs (I’m going to forget that one, starring Ashton Kutcher, already exists), they would be forgiven for greeting the prospect with some degree of trepidation. After all, Jobs was the man famous for a commencement address that included the phrase “here’s to the dreamers”. His rags-to-ritches story is the type that is recalled with awe and disbelief; his rise, fall, and then meteoric ascent into modern day god status the inspiration of many world over. After all, he started a company that more resembles an ideology one swears itself to than a simple manufacturer of products. The feverent desire to own the new iPhone, the sheer saturation of Apple’s products is cult-like, more spirituality than industry. I confess, I am part of the Apple Army, the gang of glowing fruit on the outside of their laptop, on which I am currently writing this review (the irony is not lost on me, I’m waiting for my computer to self-destruct for writing about Jobs not as a god, but a person). Jobs is a personality ripe to fall prey to the curse of worshipping apologia, despite his large number of public failures and reputation for being a less-than wonderful person. He changed the world, after all, so who cares about the rest?

Aaron Sorkin, it turns out. Steve Jobs, as penned by him and directed with trademark frenetic energy by Danny Boyle, is both a pressure-cooker character study and an origin story, a double narrative that effectively (and unapologetically) conveys Jobs’s often corrosive character as well as admitting his mark on modern technology. Here, Jobs is not just his undoubtedly intelligent but single-minded self, but also a stand-in for the evolution of the psychology of the modern consumer. Jobs is driven by first ambition, then blind spectacle, in the process becoming disconnected from everyone around him, despite the evolution of technology. It’s both a character study and a time capsule of a world on the precipice of a tectonic shift.

Seth Rogen as Steve Wozniak and Michael Fassbender as Steve Jobs

Jobs’s simultaneous ascent and descent into narcissistic spectacle, a retrospective of evolving relationships with technology, feels current. Everything old is indeed new again. Consumers are feeling disconnected by technology, returning to the old for a sense of the tangible, the imperfect, the real. It was reported last month that old music is outselling new music for the first time in history, indicating a yearning for something created before a time of the digital and perfect, a time of collaboration instead of isolation. After all, Spike Jonze’s Her constructed a portrait of a world that is post-intimacy, where technology has progressed to the point that it replaces human contact.

So with current anxieties about disconnection, it’s appropriate that in between all the Sorkinese banter, Steve Jobs finds its recurring point in Jobs’s relationship with his daughter, Lisa Brennan-Jobs (played by Makenzie Moss at five years old, Ripley Sobo at nine years old, and Perla Haney-Jardine at 19), an emotional centre in the midst of the madness. And madness it is indeed. Danny Boyle’s direction breeds a film that differs from Sorkin’s other technology origin story, a beast that is more unwieldy and less razor sharp. But this is by no means an indictment. Sorkin’s construction of the film is an unprecious approach to the biopic, dissecting Jobs’s story through three different product launches over the course of 14 years, introduced with rapid montages of current events that signify the time has shifted. It’s akin to a three act play, intimate and driven by the spoken word. There is no mention of Jobs’s later illness, no title card filling in the rest of his life outside of the film. Rather, it’s truly about the specific moments that the film orients itself in. Sorkin focuses on the hours leading up to the launches that are not so often talked about in popular culture. The iPod is merely a thought inserted at the end of the film, and the first thoughts of iPhone not even warranting a naff mention. Jobs thunders around backstage before he takes to the stage to again be declared a hero.

Michael Fassbender as Steve Jobs and Makenzie Moss as Lisa Brennan-Jobs

Sorkin doesn’t debate that Jobs was an innovator, a risk-taking mind that was immaculately focused and driven, something that saw him become so successful. But he just as readily admits that Jobs was less-than-pleasant, his personality exchanged into more affable than abrasive the moment he graced the spotlight. In the opening scenes, set at the Apple Macintosh launch in 1984, he’s focused on one thing – trying to get the computer to “say hello”, which is the centerpiece of the launch. It’s no one’s fault, it’s a system error yet Jobs (Michael Fassbender) is insistent that it’s the fault of Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg) and tells him his team has 40 minutes to fix it. Why does the computer have to say “hello”, a greeting so simple, that suggests something to polite and upbeat, something that Jobs is not? In the subsequent scenes, he lambasts employees numerous times before telling five-year-old Lisa that he’s not her father. It’s indeed a question of likability, as Jobs explains, the computer needs to be “warm and playful and inviting”. But, as marketing head Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), the one person who is willing to stand up to Jobs’s tirades, says “if you keep alienating people for no reason there’s gonna be no one left for it to say hello to.”

As is the case with all of Sorkin’s work, the film is a constant stream of rapid-fire dialogue, delivered through his trademark ‘walk-and-talks’ down hallways and shouted across expansive rooms that make the two hours repulsively energetic. The architecture of the piece, concert halls with tight hallways, small dressing rooms, and dark backstage areas, combined with the outlandish energy of Boyle’s direction, end up being a perfect match for one another despite their seeming incompatibility. In later acts, set at the NeXT launch in 1988 and the iMac launch in 1998, the hype and spectacle increase, and the launches move to larger locations. But despite their bigger seat capacity, they don’t become any less claustrophobic. It’s much of the same, foreshadowing the little development that Jobs’s personality goes through. Cinematographer Alwin H. Küchler utilises two different film stocks (16mm in the 1984 segment, 35mm in the 1988 segment) in the early acts of the film, before moving to digital in the final act, a choice that, while always doesn’t perfectly match the film (the 16mm looks blurry on a multiplex screen, soft and dreamy against Sorkin’s cutting dialogue), is a nonetheless inspired choice. His compositions, which constantly frame within walls, windows, banks of theatre seats and the like, confine the action to as little space as possible. The film and the personalities always feel too big for the space they’re in, like a pressure cooker sure to burst at any moment. One keeps watching to see when it eventually will.

Kate Winslet as Joanna Hoffman and Michael Fassbender as Steve Jobs

While his expertise was proven by his turns in Shame and 12 Years a Slave, it’s as obnoxious tech giant Jobs that Michael Fassbender reveals his true talent for being a chameleonic performer. Fassbender, with a gaunt face, animalistic eyes, and sly grin, disappears into Jobs’s trademark turtleneck sweaters so seamlessly and so naturally, shouting vitriol without a hint of apology and pie-in-the-sky maxims without cynicism, that one indeed forgets that they’re watching Michael Fassbender pretend for two hours. Given nearly equal screen time to him and always threatening to steal the show from him however is Kate Winslet as Joanna Hoffman. Winslet’s performance is also one of chameleonic virtuosity, disappearing behind a dark brown wig and large spectacles without any sense of pantomime. Hoffman’s accent, a very specific mangle of Polish and American, would have presented enough challenges for pulling off the role this naturalistically. First, there’s the matter of being able to mimic it and never let it slip, and second, there’s the matter of it yes, never feeling over-the-top. But as Winslet has demonstrated numerous times before, including in her powerhouse performance as Tilly Dunnage in The Dressmaker last year which saw her achieve a perfect Australian accent for the second time (first being in Jane Campion’s 1999 battle of the sexes Holy Smoke!), she is a true master of the power of the voice. How one speaks is how they present themselves, their past, their present, and their identity to the world.

With Fassbender’s unsentimental performance, however, and Sorkin’s script relatively absent of his more dewy-eyed tendencies (even the circle-backs to Lisa are less heavy-handed), it’s strange that Steve Jobs’s only real stumbling block is the conclusion. A too-sentimental crash zoom of tying up loose threads by introducing more, a haphazard attempt to maybe show that there’s something real behind Jobs’s hard exterior; it’s one that’s not entirely unsuccessful (the preceding 90 or so minutes have been utterly fantastically exhilarating), but rather feels illogical with the rest of the film. Sorkin has confidently raced towards the finish line for the duration, only to decide to slow down. Standing on the top of Davies Symphonic Hall in San Francisco, an endless blue sky visible for the first time in the film, he admits that he’s “poorly made”. It’s undoubtedly a last-ditch attempt at connection, like the modern consumer realising they want something tangible. But is it real? Well, that’s still up for debate.

Rating: 4.5/5


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