Steve Jobs

Backstage harangue
★★★
☆☆
Released: 
2015
Director: 
Danny Boyle
Starring: 
Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Seth Rogen, Jeff Daniels
The Setup: 
Group of people confront Steve Jobs before three product launches.
Discussion: 

Eeesh. It might have been a good idea for a play. Perhaps you know that this movie is not so much a biography as a weird talk piece meant to portray who Steve Jobs was through a deep examination of three key periods in his life. And perhaps you know it’s by Aaron Sorkin, so it very well could be brilliant, as The Social Network ultimately turned out to be. And because of that, you know that all the reviews that say it’s mediocre could be wrong, because they might just not getting it, and seeing the deeper underlying structure that, as has become painfully apparent, only readers of Cinema de Merde can see. But unfortunately it’s not. It’s just the same group of people haranguing Steve Jobs over the same thing in three different time periods. The end.

All of these happen in the hours leading up to a big product launch, which, as we know, became such a big way in which the world experienced Steve Jobs. The film opens with Arthur C. Clarke showing some journalist a massive computer and saying that in the future, we’ll all have one of these in our homes and use it to buy airline tickets and make restaurant reservations. I thought that was a nice touch, especially as even those of a certain age need to be reminded how new all of this technology is [I showed a friend of mine Twin Peaks recently, and was amazed to be reminded that in 1990 a household had one phone, and you couldn’t use the phone if someone else was on it]. The film opens in 1984 before the launch of the Macintosh, and all happens backstage at a big theater in the hour[s] before the event.

Kate Winslet is terrific in bad hair and glasses as Jobs’ harried assistant Joanna, always in the background, hovering, managing, keeping things on track and enduring astonishing stress. Thing is, it’s such a naturalistic presentation in a film designed to have no story momentum and that is specifically set against development of characters of rise and fall of drama, and her achievement seems like nothing. It feels closer to documentary footage and she’s so good, you just don’t even think of it as acting. Also on hand is Jobs’ ex Chrisann, played by Katherine Waterston, whose performance can be summed up with the word “simpering.” She has apparently decided that the hour before a product launch would be the very best time to bring Jobs’ daughter, Lisa, around to force him to acknowledge her and ask for support money. Jobs repeatedly states that the girl is not his child, and tells the child directly that the LISA computer is NOT named after her.

Seth Rogen is good, as he’s finally being serious and doing something other than being stoned, which he seems to be making a career out of lately [Did I ever tell you that I watched The Interview and it was so bad I now fully believe that the whole North Korea deal was invented in order to get at least some people to watch it?]. He shows up in all three time periods to harangue Jobs to acknowledge the contributions of the Apple II team. He’s convincing, but it is an absolutely thankless role, as he just keeps up with the same complaint in each segment. Jeff Daniels at least has different circumstances in each of the three segments [he fired Jobs after the failure of the Macintosh], but he has the film’s most ludicrous, most shoehorned-in line, in which he asks Jobs to reflect on his lingering effects of being adopted with fewer than 60 seconds left before Jobs is to walk onstage.

Which is another way in which the conceit really creaks. There are numerous extended minutes and hours as we are told that there’s only so much time left, then the film and characters start going on at length over this or that personal issue. Which is not to mention the overall ridiculousness that all of these characters have apparently decided that RIGHT before a product launch is the very best time to revisit lifelong personal grudges. Not to mention that it’s the SAME group of people who show up every time with the same grievances. Which ultimately starts to chip at the presentation of Jobs himself because—this famous control freak didn’t exercise any control whatsoever over his mental space prior to going onstage for one of these product launches?

The other fatal flaw is that the movie is structured to offer no dramatic payoff. Nothing is developed, and nothing is resolved. No one takes any action, except to harangue. There is no more at stake in segment three as there was in segment one. And all of the interesting things—the Macintosh failing, Jobs getting fired from Apple, NeXT computer failing, etc.—we only hear about or see in a disembodied flashback. So the really interesting things don’t happen in the movie. And there is also no personal development. We see only glacial character development in Jobs, he’s MAYBE a little more sensitive by film’s end, and he acknowledges “I’m poorly made,” but that’s all you get.

I started wishing we could see at least ONE product launch, as they were so important to our public perception of Jobs, and it would provide us with some payoff, but no. I was kind of thinking that maybe we would end with one, but no. That would also open the film to the perspective of those in the audience, and what Jobs’ products meant to them, but no. The film ends with a very meager gesture toward the idea that Jobs might acknowledge his daughter, which just [for me, at least] hasn’t built up much, or any, emotional momentum.

So it’s an interesting, and definitely ambitious, idea for a character study. And one can understand how a smart guy like Sorkin could think that it might just be that one brilliant, off-kilter idea. But it doesn’t work for a film. I keep thinking it would be much more successful as a play, where we aren’t expecting any big visceral payoff and and used to just dialogue-driven character examination. Although I would also say that the character examination here is still quite superficial. Jobs is a jerk. Did you know that? No examination as to the relationship—if there is one—between him being a jerk and his success, just, basically, that he’s a jerk. And the movie ultimately amounts to: the same group of people show up and harangue Jobs at three different time periods, then it ends.

This movie proved a tremendous flop this weekend as it expanded to wide release, and having seen it, I can see why [although I can’t see why anyone thought a wide release of this would work at all]. I talked to my mom the next morning, and she told me that she and my dad were going to see this that night, and I said: “Oh. Is there anything else you haven’t seen? Because you’re going to hate that.”

Should you watch it: 

You may think you need to see it, but you actually don’t.

Comments

I thought you would comment on Fassbender's ability to rock a turtleneck being a key ingredient in the film's vision. Steve Jobs was apparently known in the industry as "The Tyrant in the Turtleneck." I really enjoyed it and his performance was intense and very fun to watch.

Fassbender was great. I can't wait for his MacBeth. But I still think the overall movie was a bust. What else did you like about it?

I think the acting and the humor were what I enjoyed the most, but also the glimpses into the history of the personal computer. But they should have done more with the launches and the third act was not as good as the first two. I would have liked more on Job's relationship with Jeff Daniel's character.

Sweet jesus, watched this last night: 2 solid hours of Sorkinese yammering. Whoever thought this would work as a film? It felt super contrived and by-the-numbers, even with all the talent involved. Your review is spot-on, as ever.

Who thought this would work as a film... THAT is the question! But given the talent involved, you want to give it a chance, and hope they found a way. Not to mention the numerous GLOWING reviews it got. WHO gave it a glowing review, and why? Totes inexplicable, that's for sure.