THERE IS GENIUS IN FRONT OF THE CAMERAS, BEHIND THE SCENES OF DANNY BOYLE’S LATEST
By T.T. Stern-Enzi
Rating: R Grade: A
Just two years ago, director Joshua Michael Stern (“Swing Vote”) and newbie screenwriter Matt Whiteley dove headlong into a rather conventional biopic on Apple visionary Steve Jobs, which seemed poised to garner attention with the casting of Ashton Kutcher as Jobs. Kutcher, known primarily for That ’70s Show and the MTV series Punk’d (which he executive produced), sought to use his surface-level resemblance to Jobs as the springboard to more dramatic feature work, but the film never took off. The vacancy in his performance coupled with the formulaic paint-by-numbers approach to such a controversial and revered figure amounted to a complete operating system crash at the box office and with critics.
The stakes and, more importantly, the conception are different in “Steve Jobs,” and it starts with screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s brilliant foundation. His script is a perfect beast of a narrative, classically based yet never less than daring in its examination of three pivotal moments in the life of Jobs and Apple (which merge into one complex whole over the course of the film’s run time). My personal favorite is the beginning, taking us back to the Macintosh launch in 1984, following that revolutionary commercial kickoff, which drew its inspiration from George Orwell’s “1984.” As a lifelong Mac user, I remember that ad, though I knew nothing about the man or the beautiful mind behind it. Yet, unbeknownst to me, Jobs knew me. He knew enough about how to reach me, to give me exactly what I wanted, even before I knew I wanted it.
Sorkin has more than a bit of Steve Jobs in him. He reveals himself to be the consummate maestro with the facts and the people caught up in the gravitational pull that Jobs exerts. After awhile, it doesn’t matter whether or not he has been faithful to the “truth” of Steve Jobs, because Sorkin gives us the Jobs we need, the warts-and-all version—a single-minded genius who holds onto grudges for dear life, a socially maladjusted man who was possibly never fully in touch with his own humanity, a driven visionary whose products are the best part of him (and fortunately for us, that is what he—Jobs—gives to the world).
Danny Boyle (the Academy Award-winning director of “Slumdog Millionaire”) shoots this project with a complementary conceptual approach, a nuanced framework that, for all intents and purposes, may be invisible to most viewers, but it sneaks past our unaware eyes and grabs us on an unconscious level, touching our nerve-endings, triggering nostalgia during the early third (shot on grainy film stock), educating us in the middle stages (with a cleaner use of film) and then presenting us with a reflection—albeit still nearly a decade removed from today—of life in the digital age. This is film capturing technological evolution both metaphorically and literally, and it is a quiet and quite moving wonder.
And last, but certainly not least, Michael Fassbender pulls off the improbable task of embodying the volatile genius in each stage without merely rendering them as replays of the same argument. Sorkin’s script delineates the subtle shadings of everyone’s position each step of the way, while making sure to convince us that every individual believes in their heart of hearts that they are right (which is how and why the best debates can be watched repeatedly, convincing us to switch sides with each viewing).
Fassbender’s version of Jobs, unlike Kutcher’s, doesn’t have the safety net of that physical resemblance, which means he has to rely on his own genius; his masterful way of bullying us into believing that he is Jobs. His strongest argument is never with any of the sterling members of the cast that surrounds him—Kate Winslet, Seth Rogen, Jeff Daniels and Michael Stuhlbarg—but surprisingly, with the audience. We know he looks nothing like Jobs, but like the great man, he plays us like a conductor for the ages, dazzling us with crescendos and grace notes until we see exactly what he wants us to see.
Now that’s genius.