Monday October 19, 2015
Movie Review: Steve Jobs (2015)
For a movie that combines two of the things I dislike most in the world—backstage drama and product launches—it’s not bad. But it ain't good.
Was there a better way to tell this story other than the three-act play? Or the symphony?
Ah yes, the symphony.
Here’s what we get. As Apple co-founder Steve Jobs (Michael Fassbender) gets ready to launch three iconic products—1) the Macintosh in 1984, 2) the NeXT Cube in 1988, and 3) the iMac in 1998—he interacts and argues with, among others, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), Apple computer scientist Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg), and Apple CEO John Sculley (Jeff Daniels). Flitting around the edges is Apple marketing executive Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), who does a poor job of protecting her boss just before he gets on the big stage. The opposite. To her, the half hour before a product launch is the exact right time to lambast Jobs about his “child problem.” In that he has one but won’t acknowledge her.
These are the main points of backstage contention:
- Pay for your child and her mother, ya deadbeat
- Acknowledge the Apple II dudes, ya ingrate
- Is a closed system really such a good idea?
- Was that 1984 Super Bowl commercial really such a good idea?
- Who fired whom?
Themes are revisited. The clue to the Time magazine cover, railed over in the first act, is revealed in the third. The clue to Jobs’ adoption, which may or may not be the source of his fierce drive, is revealed in the third. In the first act, Wozniak asks/demands that Jobs acknowledge the people who worked on the Apple II at the launch of the Macintosh, which seems like a bad idea even to me. In the third act, he demands the same damned thing at the launch of the iMac. Really? I thought. Again with the Apple II? Man, that wore on me.
Most of the arguments wore on me. It was screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s usual script—hyper-articulate people walking hallways while others trying to keep up physically and mentally. There was so much bickering and carping, and in such public view, it felt like a Silicon Valley version of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”
I liked moments. Lisa, the unwanted child, becomes wanted when she plays well with Jobs’ other child, the Macintosh. I like Jobs’ admission about the Cube: “I guess you could say, in layman’s terms, we don’t have an OS.” That made me laugh. Could you argue that Jobs is like a closed system himself? He doesn’t communicate well with others. “I’m poorly made,” he says in the end. Good line. For all of us.
But Sorkin and director Danny Boyle go too much with the conductor metaphor. In the second act, Jobs tells Wozniak something conductor Seiji Ozawa supposedly told him: “Musicians play their instruments; I play the orchestra.” That’s who Jobs is. We know that immediately, but Sorkin drives the metaphor home. Relentlessly.
Is “Steve Jobs” too much of a closed system? Does it strive for a kind of artistic perfection at the expense of something more expansive and interesting? I wanted to know more about Jobs’ early days: How he met Wozniak and why computers and what they learned in the garage. I wanted a story and got this.
Here’s a story. It relates to the iconic Super Bowl commercial from 1984 (not to mention “1984”), which creates buzz but not demand. Jobs thinks the Mac will fly off the shelves but it doesn’t. It’s good, and friendly, but too expensive, not to mention a closed system, so it’s Microsoft, a year later, that takes off, since its software communicates with the hardware of other companies. Consumers mix and match. They buy low. Yet when I was in a position to buy my first PC, eight years after that iconic commercial aired, I bought a Mac. Why? Because I thought that’s what everyone used. And this is in 1992. In Seattle. Which reveals either how effective that ad was or how dumb I am. Both. For the record, I haven’t stopped using Macs. I’m writing this on an iMac: OS 10.9.5 and counting.
There’s great acting here—particularly from Fassbender—and I could watch Michael Stuhlbarg in almost anything. He has a gentleness to him; he has kind eyes.
But overall “Steve Jobs” is too many unpleasant people having too many arguments that never end. Sorkin and Boyle keep taking us backstage when I wanted to get back to the garage.