Monday, November 23, 2015

Steve Jobs: Turn It Off

Michael Fassbender as Steve Jobs in Steve Jobs.

In Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine, released a couple of months ago, you can feel the documentarian Alex Gibney struggling to find a shape for the story of this icon – a way of bridging the gap between his narcissism and callousness and the heroic status he occupies in the minds of millions of people. And the impossibility of building that bridge becomes the focus; the tone of the doc is as quizzical as it is critical and astonished. I found the movie’s ambling approach a little frustrating, but mostly I admired its refusal to pretend to have worked out a finished portrait of Jobs, and the material Gibney comes up with is fascinating. By contrast, the dramatic feature Steve Jobs, written by Aaron Sorkin (based on Walter Isaacson’s biography) and directed by Danny Boyle, exudes an air of gleaming confidence and it has a carefully groomed look – I’d say vellum-bound. (The production design is by Guy Hendrix Dyas and the cinematography is by Alwin Küchler; Elliot Graham edited it.) But these two A-list filmmakers and their A-list star, Michael Fassbender, don’t even get close to creating a convincing portrait of Jobs or of the empire he created, was exiled from, and eventually returned to as its reigning monarch.

The cooled-out look of the picture is obviously Boyle’s approach, but its conception and style comes mostly from the screenplay. Sorkin found a way to get inside Mark Zuckerberg, but when it comes to Steve Jobs, he’s locked out. The movie is in three acts, each built around the main character’s unveiling of one of his inventions: the Mac, the NeXTcube, the iMac. Each act intercuts the tense, nervous moments before Jobs’ presentation, where he’s waylaid by someone with a personal issue with him – his ex-girl friend, Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston), his best friend and one-time associate, Steve “Woz” Wozniak (Seth Rogen), his Harvard-undergrad daughter Lisa (Perla Haley-Jardine) – with flashbacks. The structure must have looked great on paper, but it calls so much attention to itself that you’d think you were hearing a précis read out loud rather than an actual script. That is, if there weren’t so much goddamn dialogue: the characters, especially (of course) Jobs, never shut up, and the rat-a-tat-tat of their back-and-forth is not just exhausting; it’s alienating. When Sorkin is really swinging, as he was in his writing for The West Wing or in The Social Network, the banter swirls and elides and does figure eights; the rhythms are constantly shifting. In Steve Jobs we get the same vocal patterns over and over again, and though Boyle probably is exactly the wrong director for banter (he’s too emphatic, and he has a lousy ear), it’s not primarily his fault; the dialogue sounds like a series of lectures. I have more patience for Sorkin’s misfires than many of my friends: I enjoyed his first post-West Wing series, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, despite the pomposity of treating an SNL-type late-night comedy show as if it were as important as the White House, and I even liked select episodes of The Newsroom (and you really had to be a fan to put up with that second season). But when his stuff doesn’t work, you can see all the rigging, all the seams. I never began to be drawn in during Steve Jobs. I felt like I was permanently ensconced in some anteroom, watching from a distance the interactions between the perfectionist control freak Steve and his either desperately conciliatory or steaming acquaintances, and continually distracted by the cracks in the walls.

Kate Winslet and Michael Fassbender in Steve Jobs. (Photo: Francois Duhamel/Universal Pictures)

Rather than exploring themes and dramatizing ideas, the movie presents what feel like talking points that it returns to in scene after scene: Jobs’ genius; Jobs’ perfectionism; Jobs’ unwillingness to acknowledge the contribution of any of his associates (Woz, his lifelong friend and earliest collaborator, is affected most cruelly by this tendency); Jobs’ bizarre insistence that Chrisann’s daughter Lisa isn’t his, a protestation that vanishes eventually. Taken together, they amount to a depiction of Jobs as a brilliant inventor who’s also an insufferable prick. The problem with the movie isn’t that its titular character is so unlikable. Charles Foster Kane and Fred C. Dobbs and Norma Desmond are also narcissists, but their psychology and the discrepancy between the way they see themselves (as, respectively, a man of the people, a victim of other men’s greed who’s therefore justified in his treatment of them, and a still-great star sure that she can climb back on top) and the way other people see them – and we see them – is deeply compelling. Sorkin doesn’t show us enough about why Jobs behaves as monstrously as he does, and when he finally tells us why (Steve’s parents gave him away), it’s such a stock and inadequate explanation that we don’t pay much attention to it. Why doesn’t his obsession with the fact that his parents didn’t want him make him embrace his daughter rather than reject her? Why is he so armored against the possibility that his ex-girl friend is duping him? Why is he pathologically incapable of allowing anyone else any credit? Of course you can make a movie about a towering figure whose pathology is finally incomprehensible; Ron Shelton did it in Cobb, his brilliant anti-Citizen Kane (effectively Citizen Kane without a Rosebud). But you have to provide a reason for us to keep watching. In the case of Shelton’s (and Tommy Lee Jones’) portrayal Ty Cobb, he’s such a mass of contradictions that, like his biographer Al Stump, we can’t unravel them, but also like Stump we’re still working feverishly at it by the end of the second hour. All I wanted to do with Steve Jobs is disconnect the speakers so I didn’t have to keep listening to the sound of his voice.

The movie might be less exasperating with a different actor – and I don’t mean a dreadful actor like Ashton Kutcher, who played the part in Jobs, which was just an embarrassment. Michael Fassbender is enormously talented, but he’s such a chilly technician, precise yet weirdly resistant and inflexible, that he tends to give off a metallic odor. He works well when his unsettling combination of qualities are used in a sci-fi context (Prometheus or the X-Men pictures) or a Gothic one – I liked him as Rochester in Jane Eyre and I’m looking forward to his Macbeth. Or for ironic comedy, as in David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method, where he plays Carl Jung, hands down my favorite Fassbender performance. In Steve Jobs the combination of the lacunae in the writing and Fassbender’s persona makes him seem less human than ever.

But then, almost none of the performances works. Sorkin gives each of the supporting players a single idea: Rogen’s Woz is a wounded, uncomprehending puppy; Waterston’s Chrisann is indignant and incredulous; Kate Winslet’s Joanna Hoffman (Jobs’ head of marketing) is true-blue though his treatment of his daughter breaks her heart; Michael Stuhlbarg’s Andy Hertzfeld (the computer scientist who was, like Woz, one of Jobs’ original associates) is angry and stunned. All of these actors work hard but I didn’t believe any of them in these roles, because the way they’re written, they’re like figures in a video game that keep popping up to say the same things over and over again. The only exception is Jeff Daniels as John Sculley, the CEO of Apple. Daniels is such an instinctively humanizing actor that he manages to find pockets of wit and compassion in his lines. His presence in a few scenes operates like a balm on this assaultive movie.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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