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NYFF 2015 Biopic Film Review: "Steve Jobs" (Written by Aaron Sorkin, Directed by Danny Boyle, With Michael Fassbender)
Steve Jobs – man, mystery, possible genius, sore loser, or something in between or none at all? Ever since Jobs’s untimely passing from pancreatic cancer several years ago at the still-young age of 56, Apple aficionados, enthusiasts and virtually everyone who butted heads in the Mac v. PC wars, wanted a peek inside his labyrinthine mind to understand what made him tick and why he was both universally celebrated and reviled at the same time. While “Steve Jobs”, the second theatrically-released biopic in two years (the first being the truly lambasted Ashton Kutcher 2013 starrer “JOBS”) doesn’t offer up any palatable answers, it does imbue the audience with the tools and underpinnings necessary to piece him together. At least, in part.
To do this, studio Legendary Pictures and distributor Universal Studios wanted to reproduce the critical and commercial success that Columbia Pictures enjoyed with 2010’s Oscar-winning, David Fincher-directed film “The Social Network” which cast a very against type, likeable and geeky everyman actor Jesse Eisenberg as the youngest billionaire on record - Mark Zuckerberg, Co-Founder and CEO of Facebook. The ingredients in this stew were all there – renowned, if atypical director, mixed with the biting and surgically precise screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, already having established himself well for two decades in theater and TV. Pepper the film with some recognizable faces (Justin Timberlake as Napster founder Sean Parker) and reliable up and comers (Andrew Garfield, Rooney Mara) and it’s a done deal. That film went on to universal acclaim, and earn astounding money that year in excess of $200 million on a budget of $40 million. So, was this second Steve Jobs movie truly all about the artistry and offering a fact based account or was it purely an experimental entertainment venture that hoped to capitalize on this recently founded niche genre? From this reviewers perspective, more the latter than the former.
Even bankable stars like Judd Apatow-discovered comedy wunderkind Seth Rogen and decadent, earnest actress Kate Winslet couldn't sway the movie-going public enough to break even on box office receipts. Finishing in seventh place on its opening weekend behind more traditional, mainstream popcorn fare, the accessibility of the picture was significantly less than studios had predicted. Perhaps Sorkin's recent, by-and-large TV failure with his canceled-too-soon The Newsroom on HBO which, coincidentally co-starred Jeff Daniels certainly produced a negative pall over Sorkin's future projects. It appears that the movie's appeal genuinely coasted on the wide-appeal of “Trainspotting”, “Sunshine”, “28 Days Later” and “Slumdog Millionaire” director Danny Boyle.
The greatest factor of all which went unaccounted for was evidently simple: the movie going public was pretty sick and tired from hearing about Jobs. The ones who wound up venturing out to the theater to see this movie aren’t the same base of people purchasing the latest Apple product. In fact, the subset of the population who aren’t in the theater thinks they’d benefit from seeing it on their portable devices. This may account for the shoddy box office returns. Also, the film is nothing but talk – there are no car chases, explosions, bodies dropping, or even much swearing. This major fact no doubt means it’s a film where you can’t run for a bathroom break and expect to not lose your place. Calling this “a thinking man’s film” isn’t too far from the truth, because it does demand one’s attention and at 120-minutes divided into three very lofty 40 minute segments, patience will reward those who stick it out. The rest could very well be scratching their heads.
If audiences truly had a choice between this and Vin Diesel’s mind-numbing “The Last Witch Hunter”, the sad but predictable truth is that many would come out in droves for the latter. In fact, as a reflection of the box office numbers, Witch Hunter was ahead of Jobs. Woody Allen once said, in reference to the American market and studios: “In the United States things have changed a lot, and it's hard to make good small films now” when referring to his own motivation to leap from the American to European market where his films were more financially viable and attractive to audiences across the pond. If you think about it, and look closer, Tim Cook, current and less favorite Apple CEO was visibly against the Jobs film because he invoked that it was capitalizing on the “brand” of Jobs and not necessarily the truthfulness behind the man himself.
For the record, “Steve Jobs” accomplishes a lot – as a work of fiction, it ably uses its set pieces and technical wonder of filmmaking to the greatest extent possible. As an acting showcase, it may in fact be the best acted film of the last five to ten years with incredibly long takes and Sorkin’s trademark monologue-style delivery exiting the mouths of characters both major and minor. Where it fails, however, is it being a fact-based account. But, as Sorkin and Boyle both insist, that wasn’t their goal. Their purpose was to dig deep and peel back the layers of the very conflicted image of Jobs, and, in doing so, unearth some personal skeletons that haven’t been placed under the microscope at this level. Sure, Jobs isn’t around anymore to contest this but my feeling is, he probably wouldn’t have bothered.