Loved by critics, ‘Steve Jobs’ film fades at box office

Most seem to endorse “Steve Jobs’” authenticity in portraying this most protean of American business heroes. But box office power hurt by “Steve Jobs overload.”

Steve Jobs and Bill Gates on stage at a 2007 tech conference. (Via Wikipedia)

WASHINGTON, November 28, 2015 – Trying to paint a picture of just who Steve Jobs was and how he changed the face of technology – or at least how people use it – seems like an impossible task. When taking on a controversial persona like Steve Jobs, the tendency of a filmmaker is to simply tell his life story from start to finish. This is the route a lot biopics take.

Unfortunately, a narrow focus on a linear narrative and selective details is usually a mistake. Most people’s lives don’t have a clear narrative arc. Even if they do, such an arc omits or glosses over details that are fundamentally important not only to the person of focus but to that person influenced in turn.

In their film “Steve Jobs”—playing now at a few select cinemas after being pulled from most outlets by Universal on November 10—director Danny Boyle and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin aren’t particularly interested in creating a traditional biopic.

Done in in some respects by a previous Steve Jobs biopic, the duo rejected many of the traditional routes taken in such films by focusing entirely on the man and not so much on his accomplishments. The film has been highly rated by tech fans and critics alike. But somehow, perhaps due to an oversaturation of Jobs narratives after his untimely death, the film has done poorly at the box office. Hence its reduced exposure.

With someone like Steve Jobs, explaining why he was important to people and to culture in general is in some respects the easy route. His cult of personality is one of the most fascinating things about him, as the film’s trailer clearly indicates.

But trying to get a grip on this has proven to be slippery. Boyle and Sorkin are more interested in the force of gravity someone like Steve Jobs creates—known among writers and tech enthusiasts as Steve’s “reality distortion zone”—as well as the reasons why so many people in his life just couldn’t find a way to leave his orbit.

The film is a triptych: three acts including his rise and initial fall from grace; his resurrection; and ultimately, his final triumph as he returns to salvage and then save Apple. Boyle’s direction and Sorkin’s screenplay do an excellent job of letting these moments illuminate the kind of person Steve Jobs was and what he meant to other people.

As the film begins, we first glimpse Steve Jobs (Michael Fassbender) at the product launch for the Macintosh computer. Of the film’s three acts, this one is by far the most straightforward, giving the major characters time to define themselves and enter the field of play.

Act I shows Jobs at his most volatile, as Fassbender plays up Jobs’ confidence and, at times, his cruelty.

Fassbender’s Jobs shifts from charming and playful with designer Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg) to threatening in only a matter of moments when a planned demo fails to fulfill his expectations. What’s fascinating is how his demeanor never quite changes during his mood shifts. His tone remains upbeat while his mannerisms imply real terror for the rest of the team.

But the pain on Hertzfeld’s face says it all. He knows that Jobs is asking for the impossible and doesn’t want to disappoint him, but ultimately has little choice. It’s at this moment when the audience grasps that Jobs is more than just a boss for the people involved in the Macintosh project.

Jobs’ over all positive attitude remains astonishing, even as he juggles the Macintosh rollout while dealing with personal issues involving his partner Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen) and his former girlfriend and their daughter, Lisa, whose paternity he steadfastly refuses to acknowledge. According to the film, Jobs’ confidence never been higher at this point.

Sorkin’s script isn’t so much about getting into Jobs’ head as it is focusing on the possibility Jobs consciously created his own persona.

The theory of Steve Jobs as would-be puppet-master—or better, as the conductor of a symphony orchestra, the film’s central metaphor—forms the undercurrent of Act II. Here we see Jobs as a tyrannical conductor at his most megalomaniacal and controlling, exemplified as he lays out for John Scully (Jeff Daniels) exactly how he intends to exact revenge for his firing from Apple.

The trailer for the film seems to emphasize this conductor motif quite clearly:

His alleged plot becomes even clearer during Jobs’ discussions with confidante/assistant Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), confessing that the only reason for creating the NeXT computer is to build a smoke and mirrors illusion intended as a power play that will ultimately bring him back to Apple. Jobs’ single-minded desire is manifested in his drive to obliterate those who have wronged him, allowing them no place in his future.

The tyrannical conductor metaphor takes an even uglier turn here during Jobs’ interactions with his former girlfriend, Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston) and his daughter Lisa.

But the film’s third act seems to turn the first two acts on their heads as Jobs finally achieves the pinnacle of success in his profession. With John Scully and his inept successors gone, Jobs, in a deft series of inside moves, returns to Apple via that then-failing company’s purchase of Jobs’ NeXT operating system. In one of the most remarkable and successful corporate turnarounds of all time, he launches the radical new iMac along with its new, Unix-based ex-NeXT operating system (OS X), by far his greatest triumph at that point.

Yet here Sorkin’s script begins to wander, even as Boyle’s direction becomes esoteric, traveling back and forth through time, following Jobs as he looks back and re-examines on his past decisions. His earlier partners and nemeses are finally able to separate from him as he brings his relationship with Lisa back from life and manages to hold on to Joanna, who turns out to be the only one to keep his borderline sociopathic tendencies in check.

Although the film is at times uneven, by employing an almost operatic three-act structure for the exposition of this film, Boyle and Sorkin have created a misunderstood masterpiece. Even though they are sometimes cavalier about certain details, they have made a film that by most accounts captures exactly how this most protean visionary, tech-head and controlling CEO finally put it all together and created what, at least for now, is the largest company in the world.

En route, the filmmakers take an incident-specific look at Jobs’ world and what made his persona so intoxicating and difficult to escape. Even as he demanded absolute control and made the world seem to revolve around him, he was perhaps the first man to look upon the personal computer as a piece of performance art meant to enhance and complement how humans really think and act.

In “Steve Jobs,” the filmmakers have largely succeeded in accomplishing the same thing.

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