Monday, November 2, 2015

CITIZEN DICK: a review of "Steve Jobs"

Based upon Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson
Screenplay Written by Aaron Sorkin
Directed by Danny Boyle
**** (four stars)

We are really living within a precarious time for adult dramatic films.

Last week, Director Danny Boyle's "Steve Jobs," a film that has already received its share of superlative reviews, opened to very meager box office returns, so meager that industry trade magazine already deemed the film to be a financial flop...even though it had only been in theaters for three days. Post-mortem articles were being written and then published by last Monday, wondering if the failure to catch monetary fire was due to the fact that this film marks the third feature film in two years (including a documentary and a narrative feature starring Ashton Kutcher in the titular role) concerning the late pioneer of the technological sea change that delivered computers into everyday life.

Herein lies the problem...

First of all, we are now living within a time when films just do not have a chance whatsoever to find and build an audience as box office expectations are now seemingly designed to be met and exceeded, breaking all manner of records within the first 24-48 hours of release. The general population simply does not go out to the movies, albeit all movies that quickly and some, especially more adult themed films, do need time to catch some fire and gather the necessary word of mouth. Nowadays, movies are truly not considered to be works of art (or at least artful entertainment) meant to be cherished, discussed and debated. Movies are designed to be consumed and forgotten before you even return home from the multiplex.

Secondly, to the argument that audiences were overwhelmed with he presence of three Steve Jobs themed film within a two year period, I vehemently disagree, especially as the previous two did not receive nearly the large media push that Danny Boyle's film has received. Furthermore, please don't speak to me about any sense of over-saturation concerning the topic of Steve Jobs when how many superhero movies have been released just this year?! Honestly, when we live in a world where there have been five "Spider-Man" movies within a 13 year period and is also about to be re-booted for the second time, I think we can handle another film about Jobs.

To that end, Danny Boyle's "Steve Jobs" is an electrifying film, a riveting, verbally rancorous adult drama that not only paints a brutally impressionistic portrait of this inscrutable figure but also transcends it primary subject to speak again about the nature of genius and to our increasing lack of humanity when filtered through the very technology that was intended to elevate our humanity. It is a dramatic triumph featuring an unforgiving powerhouse, award season worthy performance by Michael Fassbender and it also serves as a complete return to form for Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin whose focus and dialogue is sharpened to the point of a knife's edge with a script that is also unquestionably awards season worthy. If word of mouth truly is the key, then let me provide that voice to you, imploring all of you to head out and see this superior, intelligent, artful, and often infuriating drama before it finds itself lost in the cracks.

Completely and boldly eschewing any biopic trappings and cliches, Danny Boyle's "Steve Jobs" is divided into three designated acts, each spending time within the years of 1984, 1988 and 1998 and all behind the scenes of three project launch events, all hosted by Jobs, played with intense ferocity by Fassbender.

Whether struggling to find ways to make the Apple Macintosh's voice demo say "Hello" to the audience in 1984, preparing for the NeXT computer launch in 1988 or awaiting the premiere of the iMac in 1998, Jobs is relentlessly confronted by several primary figures within his life.

Steve Wozniak (an excellent Seth Rogen), Jobs' former creative partner, co-founder of Apple and creator of the Apple II, simply wants Jobs to acknowledge the Apple II team's role in Jobs' success, a request that Jobs constantly refuses to Wozniak's increased fury. Apple CEO John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), essentially Jobs' Father figure, possesses a tenuous, and at times, raging personal and professional relationship that builds, explodes, and restructures itself to a most strained degree. Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg), a beleaguered member of the original Mac team is constantly on the receiving end of Jobs' wrath. And finally, we have Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston), Jobs' former girlfriend and Mother to their daughter Lisa (played at the ages of 5,9, and 19 by Mackenzie Moss, Ripley Sobo and Perla Haney-Jardine, respectively), a daughter whom Jobs repeatedly denies is his.

Serving as Jobs's conscience, as well as the film's moral core, is Joanna Hoffman (the great Kate Winslet), marketing executive for Apple and NeXT, plus Jobs' confidant and self-described "work wife." Hoffman is the sole figure able to not only stand up to Jobs' unrepentant turbulence, she is the sole figure able to break through his otherwise impenetrable walls, much to her own depleting patience and tolerance for Jobs' truly ugly behavior towards seemingly everyone in his life on his unstoppable personal quest for greatness and the legacy branding of "visionary genius."

Danny Boyle's "Steve Jobs" is an interior backstage drama that is as bracing as it is incendiary, with its unforgiving exploration of the titular figure. Boyle smartly tempers his typical visual extravagances, as seen within the likes of "Trainspotting" (1996), "28 Days Later" (2002), his finest film to date "Slumdog Millionaire" (2008) and the wrenching "127 Hours" (2010), to create a visual palate that is more theatrical than cinematic, wisely allowing all of the actors and especially, the writing of Aaron Sorkin to take the center stage.

The entire cast of "Steve Jobs" is uniformly excellent, with a real surprise arriving in Seth Rogen, who truly raises his game and is completely able to go toe-to-toe with the extraordinary Michael Fassbender but also with Sorkin's trademark mountainous, difficult dialogue which is exquisitely constructed and again contains a velocity that forces the actors and the audience to keep pace or find themselves lost in the dust. "Steve Jobs" is indeed a film without a traditional plot structure and it is indeed all dialogue, the the words, emotions, motivations and performances are entirely in lockstep, making for a film that is furiously bracing, exciting viewing.

Where Sorkin's work on his now defunct HBO series "The Newsroom" was sometimes brilliant, sometimes infuriating and often completely tonally erratic, his work with "Steve Jobs" reminds us of why he has been so revered in the first place. Conceptually, Sorkin has written what serves a as stellar companion piece to his writing within Director David Fincher's "The Social Network" (2010), another technological/interpersonal drama that painted a grim picture of another computer based and so-called "visionary" Mark Zuckerberg (played brilliantly by Jesse Eisenberg) and mirrored it with our increased societal alienation from each other as our reliance upon the technology has grown.

But, as remorseless, arrogant, jealous and embittered Zuckerberg was portrayed, he does not even come close to the seemingly bottomless cauldron of rage that boiled within this version of Steve Jobs. Michael Fassbender's performance is nothing less than relentless, as we can easily witness the wheels spinning within his mind, always seeing his deeply desired goal post in sight, often to a most cunning, unscrupulous degree and fueled by recrimination, a sense of superiority to exists as a God complex, and a desire to be thought of as a singular visionary, despite the influence and the work of countless individuals, most notably, the endlessly short-shrifted Steve Wozniak.

Boyle and Sorkin, with Fassbender as a tremendous conduit, have utilized "Steve Jobs" to create a portrait of self-aggrandizement that borders on the delusional, and the level of his cruelty is indeed unbelievable as well as unbearable, especially as he consistently denies his daughter Lisa and only tends to display any stitch of humanity after being either one-upped by others (for instance, a sequence where Andy Hertzfeld takes it upon himself to pay Lisa's college semester tuition and even suggests the possibility of therapy), or coaxed and coached by Joanna Hoffman.

And yet, what was housed inside the core of Steve Jobs on his feverish pursuit of genius? Certainly, with the film's structure and conceits, Boyle and Sorkin are essentially modeling "Steve Jobs" upon nothing less than Orson Welles "Citizen Kane" (1941), as it attempts to find what precisely drove a person, and better yet a persona, that is so unknowable, frustrating and impossible. Yes, the film does incude some internal pathos about Jobs forever dealing with his individual pain with being adopted, a process in which he supposedly felt rejected instead of accepted. But even so, I don't believe that Boyle is offering this route as any sort of an easy answer.

I think what is at the center of "Steve Jobs" is Boyle and Sorkin's ruminations over the process of self-mythologizing, a process that exists for every single one of us in the real world and now, even moreso in the 21st century, the virtual world. Just take a moment and think about how we all choose to present ourselves as we navigate our daily lives. How the figures we envision ourselves as, or aspire to become, fuels our personalities as we engage with the larger world.

What is the persona we wish to present when making that all-important first impression? What is the persona we deliver to the world within our daily lives at school, at work, with acquaintances, with friends, with romantic partners and so on. Never do we reveal every single fabric of our being, do we? We show what we wish to show, doing all we can to push what we feel as undesirable aspects out of view. Certainly, within social media, this aspect of our humanity has exploded for we can truly become even more selective with the personality traits and successes and attributes we wish to present to the world at large. Within the gaming community, we can even re-design ourselves, functioning as avatars that may not even remotely resemble who we are in the real world, and armed with talents and skills we do not possess.

We are all in the process of creating our own mythologies, our own legends to such unprecedented degrees that we do indeed run the risk of completely living within fantasy rather than reality. And in the case of Steve Jobs, as presented within this film, we witness an individual who has mythologized himself to such a titanic level, justified or not. In his mind and through how he presents himself outwardly, Steve Jobs is one who can stand on equal footing as Albert Einstein, Alan Turing, Bob Dylan and Miles Davis (whose portraits, at one point, surround his stage--which just may function as a physical representation of his own head space), and therefore, has given himself the right to not suffer anyone he deems to be lesser than himself, regardless of the damage he leaves behind on his road to glory. In Jobs' mind, genius cannot co-exist with simple human decency. Why? It would seem that Jobs barely ever slowed down to ponder the reasons.

Who are we, how do we envision ourselves, what do we desire and what are we becoming all sit at the heart of Danny Boyle's "Steve Jobs" a character study that also functions as a stern warning about our increased reliance/addiction to technology and social media. And in addition to "The  Social Network," it is a film that sits smartly alongside recent features like Spike Jonze's "Her" (2013) and even Kevin Smith's "Tusk" (2014), other films that also delivered impassioned pleas for us to not lose ourselves within the rabbit holes of the internet, our dreams and even our own psyches.

This is indeed the gift of an exceedingly well presented adult drama, the kind of which that has become more difficult to get made within the Hollywood studio system and definitely more difficult to not find itself lost among other and bigger films. It's amazing to me that Robert Zemeckis' wonderful "The Walk" has already come and gone and with the rapid arrivals of James Bond, Katniss Everdeen, the Peanuts gang and the latest Pixar offering in the coming weeks, this powerfully excellent film will undoubtedly suffer the same unfortunate fate.

Of course, not every film can be a hit. But, something this engrossing, this compelling, this worthy of examination and debate and something of this high quality more than deserves a fair chance.

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