Saturday, October 24, 2015

Review: "Steve Jobs" is a Flawed Yet Captivating Masterpiece

Left to right: Seth Rogen and Michael Fassbender
Ever since the dawn of celebrity culture, the concept of the larger than life individual has always fascinated us. They seem like infallible life forms sent to Earth to entertain while serving no other use. It has been chronicled throughout film history going back to films like The Great Ziegfeld and The Pride of the Yankees. These are films that tell a story that is often stranger than fiction. To a large demographic, Apple founder Steve Jobs is arguably among the largest of the larger than life celebrity; revolutionizing technology and building himself up from nothing on multiple occasions. With the latest film from director Danny Boyle and writer Aaron Sorkin, the story plays like what happens when Dorothy pulls back the curtain in The Wizard of Oz. We see the fractured life of a charismatic man; creating one of the most artful, fast paced looks into acclaim that has been captured on film this year thanks in large part to Michael Fassbender's brilliant performance.

To call this a biopic is like calling The Social Network the life story of Mark Zuckerberg or Moneyball as Billy Beane's story. Sorkin doesn't do biopics; at least not in the conventional sense. What attracts him to these figures is not just their dreams and ideals, but the people who stand behind him. In the case of Steve Jobs, it's done in one of the writer's most ambitious scripts of his recent career. Over the course of three product launches, we're given privy to Jobs' life behind the scenes. There's his family, including a daughter of whom he initially neglects and thinks is adopted. There's his coworkers, who all fall in and out of trust with him due to his ego. There's his assistant (Kate Winslet), who is the closest figure in the film to serve as a Q & A for the missing pieces and the deepest look into his ego. This isn't a new formula for Sorkin. It's just that this time, it's done in an ingenious triptych mode that ties beautifully together as the story progresses.

If there is one complaint that should be lobbied at the film, it's that this story is too good for film. The writing does a lot of the heavy lifting as it's shuffled along by its charismatic cast. However, this is the work of a stage play. With a little tweaking, there's nothing keeping the story from being more fit for the stage. There's nothing really cinematic about the story, nor is there a need to tell it quite like it is. At the end of the film, it mostly works because of Fassbender, whose charismatic performance compliments the material with some of his most electric moments of his career. Even if he's not the most convincing Jobs, he's a great Jobs for the screen because he makes us interested. Even if he's stuck screwing over everyone to get his way, he has the charm of a frustrated genius that will either make you love or hate him. However, that is of no fault of Fassbender, who is nothing short of charismatic brilliance here.

While this story feels like it was in the wrong medium, it still feels like a unique and powerful film thanks to director Danny Boyle. While he has been more hit and miss in the past few years, he brings his best tendencies to this film and illuminates Sorkin's script in the best ways possible. Even if the film is disappointingly not a series of long takes as it was planned years ago, it still has a dreamlike state that makes Jobs himself seem both like the mythological figure and the flawed antagonist of his own life. With Daniel Pemberton's manic score, the film ends up becoming an art piece of a man who wasn't afraid to experiment. It's at times surreal to see how Boyle's sense of colorful imagery bleeds into the various backdrops. For some, it's likely a turn off, distracting from Sorkin's rich dialogue. However, it creates one of the most unique portraits out there.

The only real complaint to be had is that it's likely factually incorrect for the sake of art. In a move that is likely to divide audiences, the ending features a relatively "happy" ending for Jobs. It's a little saccharine and lets Jobs off the hook, but it also feels the most honest to Sorkin's vision. It is frustrating to see him work out his private life in a successful manner, though there's deeper clues that reflect why Sorkin is a great writer. The triptych format causes him to revisit old themes, updating how Jobs has changed as an individual. Despite the "happy" ending, it's still not always for the best. What is left is a story that, had it been about a fictional person, would be perfectly quaint. Because it's Jobs - and he is who he is - it is likely to enrage, or at least cause the fact checkers to have a field day. If enjoyed as simply a literary device, Steve Jobs is actually a very concrete play trapped on film.

Steve Jobs is a film about a man that influenced more people than anyone could really hope to. Even if the film doesn't explore his bigger magnum opus with the iPod, it gives a strong, psychological look into a complicated life. It doesn't do so conventionally, but drops clues in a very blatant three act structure, forcing the audience to piece the missing years together. It's more of a tribute to writing and ambition than to Jobs himself. For some, that is likely to be frustrating. For those who take it as this strange, meditative trip through a complicated man's life, then it will be wholly satisfying. If nothing else, Fassbender continues to prove why he is among the best working actors and why he continues to draw us in with every film he does. You may not love the film, but it's hard not to admire Fassbender's performance. That's a fact.

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