PHILADELPHIA (WTXF) - Most of us know the Steve Jobs story by now. Over about three decades, the Apple cofounder created some of the greatest technological innovations that have affected each of our lives, but at the same time was something of a jerk in his personal and professional lives. This dichotomy has been the subject of a myriad of books, articles, columns, and thinkpieces over the years, as well as two previous theatrically released films just in the last two years.
So how can Steve Jobs, clearly aiming to go down in history as the definitive movie about Jobs, stand out and stay something new about the man? With a totally unconventional biopic that makes no attempt at telling the complete Jobs story and actually focuses on three key moments and a small handful of Jobs’ relationships.
Steve Jobs, based on Walter Isaacson’s authorized biography that was published shortly after Jobs’ 2011 death, is adapted by screenwriter Aaron Sorkin with a unique structure: Each of the three acts is set at a major product launch (the Macintosh, the NeXT computer and the iMac), and features Jobs conducting tense backstage confrontations with the same few people: His cofounder Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), his longtime marketing assistant Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), business rival John Sculley (Jeff Daniels) engineer Andy Herzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg) and his ex-girlfriend and daughter Lisa (played respectively by Katherine Waterston and a series of young actresses.)
It’s all very entertaining, and well-directed by Danny Boyle, as the colorful Apple design aesthetic is a fine match for his Boyle’s visual style. The dialogue is first-rate, and the examination of Jobs’ life holds interest whether you know Apple history backwards and forwards or not. This is clearly a huge improvement over both the Ashton Kutcher version from 2013 and the Alex Gibney-directed documentary from earlier this fall.
That said… to enjoy this film, you need to get past a few things: That Michael Fassbender looks almost nothing like Steve Jobs. That almost none of the dialogue was ever said by anyone, and especially not on the days of major Apple keynotes. That the characters, all of them based on real people with real names, sound way more like Aaron Sorkin than the actual people. And that if Steve Jobs had really made a habit of having tense, heated confrontations with crucial people in his life, and only ever did so backstage in the minutes immediately prior to major product launches, it would have said something pretty crucial about Jobs. Except it doesn’t, because Jobs didn’t really do that.
As for Sorkin, both Good Sorkin and Bad Sorkin are in plentiful evidence here. There’s the strong dialogue, the gleaning of believable truths about a famous, powerful person, and reasonably decent use of Jeff Daniels. But, there’s also a certain air of smugness, and a doubling back on Sorkinisms of the past (yes, “don’t talk to me like I’m other people” gets said by Wozniak to Jobs.) And when the grown-up version of Lisa Brennan-Jobs speaks, she sounds exactly like every Aaron Sorkin female character of the last ten years.
And while one got a decent sense of Mark Zuckerberg from Sorkin’s script for The Social Network and of Billy Beane from his Moneyball, we don’t learn a whole about Jobs from this film that we didn’t know beforehand. Then again, a complete accounting of Jobs’ life, which adapted the Isaacson book in full, couldn’t possibly fit in a whole movie; a 10-hour cable mini-series would probably be necessary.
“Steve Jobs” had something of a troubled production history, changing studios, directors and lead actors multiple times. Entertaining as the Boyle/Fassbender version is, one must wonder how a version directed by David Fincher and starring Christian Bale might have turned out.
Everything about Bridge of Spies just screams “prestige.” Director Steven Spielberg. Star Tom Hanks. Screenwriters (!) Joel and Ethan Coen. A story based on a particularly tense episode of the Cold War.
The film is handsomely designed, gorgeously photographed, and has a couple of scenes of great tension and an inspiring speech or two. But sadly, it goes in the “minor Spielberg” category. Why? Because it suffers from a distinct lack of movie magic.
Set in the late 1950s, Bridge of Spies stars Hanks as James Donovan, a Brooklyn lawyer appointed to defend Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), an accused Soviet spy. Abel’s arrest (following a tense opening sequence) and trial take up the film’s first half; after U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) gets shot down and captured by the Russians, Donovan’s attempts to arrange a prisoner exchange take up the bulk of the second half.
This is an honorable film, though not a particularly entertaining or thought-provoking one. Spielberg doesn’t really have anything new or groundbreaking to say about the Cold War. The film’s ultimate point- that those loyal to the U.S. and U.S.S.R. have more in common than you think, but ultimately America is best- is driven home by an anvil-like bit of symbolism involving people climbing the Berlin Wall and getting shot, and then climbing a fence unimpeded back in America.
Hanks is just fine, although not quite reminiscent of his best days, the way his Captain Phillips turn was two years ago. Rylance is the true revelation as Abel, although as Powers, Stowell barely gets a character to play at all. Amy Ryan also gets very little to do as Hanks' wife.
Munich was a better Spielberg spy film, and it wasn't really a spy film at all.
With Crimson Peak, director Guillermo Del Toro has made what feels like four different movies, which don’t fit together and could probably have used some streamlining.
Mia Wasikowska stars as a young American woman in the late 19th century, who falls in with a mysterious Englishman (Tom Hiddleston) who claims to be a nobleman, who’s also got a creepy, ever-present sister (Jessica Chastain). Meanwhile a nice-guy doctor (Charlie Hunnam) watches from the sidelines, while her father (Deadwood’s great Jim Beaver) looks on suspiciously.
Of the four “movies,” the best one of all is the gothic horror movie, set in an ornately decorated but deteriorating English mansion. Less successful are the period costume drama, and the ghost story (in which at least a couple of the ghosts have nothing to do with the main plot) and the subplot about the heroine’s literary aspirations that the movie keeps forgetting about for long stretches.
While the mansion is an absolute triumph of set design, no other element of the movie really works up to that level.
Steve Jobs, Bridge of Spies and Crimson Peak all open locally this Friday.