Film review of Steve Jobs

(This review of “Steve Jobs” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on February 11, 2016.)

Directed by Danny Boyle
Written by Aaron Sorkin, based on the book by Walter Isaacson
Starring Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Seth Rogen, Jeff Daniels, Michael Stuhlbarg and Katherine Waterston

When Apple tops the world’s list of companies by market valuation (yes, number one), it is natural to be fascinated by the new film “Steve Jobs” about its visionary co-founder, played by Michael Fassbender. It also helps that Steve Jobs was larger than life, a major presence in the both corporate and technology worlds over three decades, far out-classing his brilliant but less confident Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak (played by Seth Rogen).

With “Steve Jobs”, Jewish screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (“The West Wing”) establishes his primacy as the top screen “interpreter” of technology company founders, following his Oscar-winning screenplay of “The Social Network”, about the early days of Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg. Despite the direction of Danny Boyle (“Slumdog Millionaire”), Sorkin “owns” the creative force of “Steve Jobs” in a way that few screenwriters can do.

Like “The Social Network”, some of the facts and many of the interpretations in “Steve Jobs” are disputed by those who were close to the action. Sorkin originally developed his dramatic flair with stage plays; “Steve Jobs” could, in fact, be one of them. It runs on a three-act structure, with each “act” centred on one technology launch by Jobs: the Macintosh in 1984, the NEXT Cube in 1988 and finally the iMac in 1998.

The film includes flashbacks and scene-setting documentary footage, including the famous “1984” Super Bowl advertisement for the Macintosh computer, but most of “Steve Jobs” takes place within the buildings where the three launches took place. At each launch, six real-life characters from Jobs’ life seek him out, all stating their case of what they want from him (behaviour, money, recognition, love, acceptance).

Psychologically vulnerable former girlfriend Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston) wants a reluctant Steve to acknowledge the existence of their daughter, Lisa (played by different actresses at ages 5, 9 and 19), as well as money to live on. Young Lisa simply wants a father figure, which Jobs churlishly refuses to be. Russian-born Jewish Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), the Apple Head of Marketing, is the one employee who can stand up to Jobs’ bullying, and acts as his personal and professional conscience. Much is made of Hoffman’s “shtetl” upbringing; she is one of the most interesting Jewish characters to appear in American films in the last year.

Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak (Rogen) wants Jobs simply to recognise the contributions of his Apple 2 design team, something that Jobs steadfastly and boorishly refuses to do. Apple CEO John Scully (Jeff Daniels) wants Jobs to behave properly with his board of directors. And lead Apple designer Andy Hertzfeld (Jewish actor Michael Stuhlbarg) just wants Jobs to treat him like a human being, not a cog in a machine.

Did all of these characters interact with Jobs at each launch? No. But Sorkin’s “dramatic license” allows the film to show how all of these intimates developed their relationships with Jobs over time. It’s a classic technique, brilliantly executed.

The result is a wordy and at times claustrophobic film, which may not be to everyone’s taste. The personality of Jobs that emerges – a supremely confident, charismatic, controlling and not-very-nice-man – can also make the film difficult to watch. In addition to Sorkin’s fine screenplay, however, the performances are all strong and frequently riveting, with Fassbender and Winslet (both Oscar-nominated) standing out.

Although Jobs was not Jewish, the film has many Jewish connections: both writers – Sorkin and original book author Walter Isaacson; and the characters Hertzfeld and Hoffman, along with the journalists Walt Mossberg and Joel Pforzheimer, are all Jewish. Although Steve Wozniak was not Jewish, Seth Rogen plays him like a character who is. Australian Sarah Snook (not Jewish) and Jewish actor Adam Shapiro also appear.

(photo below:  Michael Stuhlbard, Michael Fassbender and Kate Winslet in “Steve Jobs”)

Stuhlbarg Fassbender Winslet


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