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Steve Jobs

Universal // R // February 16, 2016
List Price: $34.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Tyler Foster | posted February 16, 2016 | E-mail the Author
Following the success of The Social Network, screenwriter Aaron Sorkin set his sights on a different technological giant, Apple co-founder Steve Jobs. Initially envisioned as a project that would reteam Sorkin with Network's director David Fincher, progress slowed when Fincher left the project over contractual disputes (taking his choice for Jobs, Christian Bale, along with him), and the movie was dropped by Sony despite securing Michael Fassbender as a new headliner. By the time Danny Boyle picked up the reins over at Universal and filled out the cast with Kate Winslet as marketing executive Joanna Hoffman and Seth Rogen as Apple's other co-founder Steve Wozniak, the movie's "moment" seemed to have passed. Despite strong reviews and box office in limited release, the film flopped hard when it opened wide in fall 2015.

Admittedly, Steve Jobs struggles to connect on an emotional level, but the thrill of watching the cast delivering Sorkin's trademark barbed-wire dialogue is enough to sustain the movie all on its own. Even if viewers have no interest in Steve Jobs or his products (I was one of those people), Sorkin's interpretation of Jobs and the people who surround him is so vivid that the movie commands attention anyway. Naturally, the film is a fictionalization of Jobs, so the question lingers as to how much insight Sorkin or Boyle have on the protagonist, especially when considering those attempts to expand his humanity. Nonetheless, as a showcase for Fassbender, Winslet, Rogen, and supporting cast members Michael Stuhlbarg, Jeff Daniels, Katherine Waterston and John Ortiz, the movie is a knockout, a dizzying feat of talented actors firing on all cylinders.

The movie is split up into three distinct sections, covering the launch of the first Macintosh back in 1984, the launch of the NeXT computer in 1988, and the launch of the iMac in 1996, with limited flashbacks to a pre-Apple Jobs, still building the computer with Wozniak in a garage and trying to lure Pepsi executive John Sculley (Daniels) to become Apple's CEO. Through these sequences, Sorkin paints a picture of Jobs' attitude toward his products, his perfectionism and refusal to compromise, and his ability to see a larger picture. He also interacts with key co-workers, including Hoffman, "Woz", Andy Hertzfeld (Stuhlbarg), Sculley, and GQ reporter Joel Pforzheimer (Ortiz), as well as his ex-girlfriend Chrisann Brennan (Waterston), and young Lisa (Makenzie Moss, Ripley Sobo, and Perla Haney-Jardine) -- identified as his daughter through a paternity test, but not one that Steve wants to acknowledge.

The previous Jobs biopic (Jobs) took a traditional approach, running through Jobs' history from the time the Macintosh was created through to his triumph with the iPhone. By taking a more stylized approach, Steve Jobs feels less like a history lesson and more like a character study. Sorkin and Fassbender's Jobs is a man who doesn't just see the bigger picture, but feels like anything less than the bigger picture is a distraction. His obsession over something like Mac being able to say "hello" at the launch stem from something as seemingly unrelated as the public's wider perception of computers as evil thanks to movies and television. In key confrontation with Woz, Steve quotes a composer: "Musicians play their instruments, I play the orchestra. You sit right there, you're the best in your row." Woz feels that the quote sounds nice and means nothing, but it's a perfect summary of Steve's worldview. Woz's obsession over one detail strikes Steve as irrelevant in comparison to Steve's ideas about how Woz's talents can being utilized, which Steve has chosen in relation to and as a complement to other "players" in Woz's "row," who have been assembled to work in tandem with the people in the surrounding rows, which ultimately determines how the orchestra works as a whole, all with the end game of nothing less than redefining how the audience feels about music itself. Once Steve's settled on a vision, his perspective may be extremely limited, but Sorkin's screenplay integrates factual details -- Steve's miracle return to Apple in the 1990s after being unceremoniously fired, the success of the iMac and its place in history as the first step of Jobs' complete revitalization of Apple's brand -- as proof that his big-picture mentality paid off (to that end, the ubiquitousness of iMacs in my junior high and high school speaks to Steve's intution about computers for education). Fans of "The West Wing" or "The Newsroom" may notice him plagiarizing himself (he's used some of the film's best exchanges before), but for the uninitiated, they still land. As I don't watch those shows, I'd be more inclined to pick at the film's occasional clumsiness in tying the three segments together (Sorkin's attempts to undercut his repetitive structure by commenting on it aren't successful).

Fassbender's performance is of nearly immeasurable value to the movie. Although Bale or second-choice DiCaprio may have done a good job, there's slightly weaselly quality to Fassbender's performance, in his toothy grin and slightly whiny voice, that it's hard to imagine either of the other actors bringing to the role. His clipped precision and casual cruelty are of almost immeasurable importance to the movie -- it's no surprise that despite the movie's poor commercial performance, Fassbender still landed a Best Actor nod. Of course, an actor is only as good as his co-stars, and nearly everyone is elevated by his work as their work elevates his. The movie's successful strands of emotional sincerity are provided by Winslet, who accomodates Steve's eccentricities but sees his shortcomings clearly. Fassbender shares the movie's best scene with Daniels, an argument in the second section about Steve's ousting from Apple that also marks some of editor Elliot Graham's best work. Stuhlbarg isn't far behind, serving as a pillar of the first segment as the tech in charge of fixing the voice demo, and delivering some crucial truths to Steve in the third. Only Rogen fails to reinvent himself as Wozniak, but the familiarity of his voice and mannerisms aren't really something he can control, and it's more than likely that Boyle cast him for those popular, familiar qualities.

Boyle's films, from Trainspotting to Slumdog Millionaire, are frequently stylized and sometimes surreal. Steve Jobs is one of his most grounded, set in the halls, dressing rooms, and stages of concert halls and auditoriums, but he finds plenty of ways in which dynamic camera angles, striking color palettes, and the surroundings themselves (from slightly low-rent dressing rooms to the stylish modern decor of a more contemporary hall) to give the film a visual kick. On paper, the movie's energy was in the dialogue; on screen, Boyle finds ways to frame the shots and keep the pacing up to match. Steadicam is employed liberally, for Sorkin's trademark walk-and-talks, and in one long tracking shot, images of a space shuttle launch appear on a wall behind Fassbender and Winslet, as if it were playing on an unseen projector. Time jumps are settled with quick-cut audio and visual motages of news reports, trimmed to their most relevant details.

So, the film is a crackling bit of drama with the palpable energy of a stage play, and the visual style worthy of the big screen. All that's left is the question that's hardest to answer: Does Steve Jobs properly capture the essence of the real Steve Jobs? His perfectionism and bullheadedness are easily to believe, but Sorkin doesn't just want to lionize him, but humanize him as well, and it's in this area where the film gets muddled. The movie's running thread is Jobs' treatment of Lisa, which is as temperamental as any of his relationships. Sorkin taps into something with the concept of Steve's "reality distortion field", his inability to see certain things objectively once he's come to a conclusion, but he can't completely connect it to Lisa's feelings about Steve or Steve's feelings about Lisa. The film builds to a confrontation between Jobs and a college-age Lisa (Haney-Jardine) that gets too wrapped up in Sorkin's dialogue to properly convey how the characters feel, building to a rooftop conversation that feels pat and overly sentimental. The movie concludes with feel-good signfiers like a swelling soundtrack and quiet acknowledgments, but Steve's admission that he's not perfect feels like a better assessment of the movie than of the man: frequently thrilling, always interesting, but occasionally lacking.

The Blu-ray
The difference between Steve Jobs' theatrical poster and this Blu-ray cover is like a miniature argument against a centered and framed design. On the theatrical poster, most of the image is white with a small Steve in the bottom right corner. Here, we zoom in on Steve, past a degree that would allow us to see all of him the way he's shown on the poster, cutting off his head and most of his body, with the text moved from the negative space to his instantly-recognizable black turtleneck. The back cover uses boxes arranged in a grid, which looks a little weird when the slipcover (matte with spot gloss) is removed and the excess white space around the UPC is more obvious. Inside the eco-friendly Viva Elite case, one will find the Blu-ray, DVD copy, and leaflet containing the UltraViolet Digital HD copy code. Users have noted that, somewhat ironically, this is one of the only Universal titles with Digital HD that cannot be redeemed on iTunes as well as UltraViolet.

The Video and Audio
Steve Jobs' three distinct sections were shot on different film formats to help provide another visual reminder of the passage of time. The first segment was shot on 16mm, the second segment was shot on 35mm, and the final segment was shot on digital (there are even actual visual cues referencing the formats placed in the film as Boyle transitions from each segment). As such, the film's look varies throughout, with the first segment being noticeably grainy and the last segment being crisp and clean, but what never wavers is the quality with which these segments are rendered. Even as the technology changes, this Blu-ray replicates the format authentically and accurately, offering as much detail and depth as the various techniques will allow. Colors are crisp and vivid throughout, and I did not spot any banding or compression issues. My only question is -- not a complaint, but a question -- why is the Universal logo unusually dark? Danny Boyle, email me.

Sound is a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track. You would think, given the film is almost wall-to-wall dialogue, that the sound mix might not be as important as it is for bigger or more spectacular efforts, but what's especially impressive here is the mix's prioritization of certain elements over others, the integration of music, and the authenticity with which environments are rendered. The movie has a wonderful electronic score by Daniel Pemberton, filled with articulate, jittery synths that add to the excitement and tension of each product launch, which blends nicely into the background without disappearing. In one of the movie's more amplified moments, a piece of classical music intrudes on a conversation until it nearly overwhelms. As Fassbender and Winslet perform Sorkin's patented walk-and-talks, directionality becomes relevant as well, placing the characters in the maze-like hallways and backstage passageways of various concert halls and convention centers. A French DTS 5.1 and Descriptive Video Service DD 2.0 track are also included, as well as English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing, and French and Spanish subtitles.

The Extras
Two audio commentaries are included, one featuring director Danny Boyle and the other featuring screenwriter Aaron Sorkin and editor Elliot Graham. Boyle is a pleasant and articulate speaker, talking about what aspects drew him to the project, what it was like working with Fassbender and the rest of his cast, and the legacy of Steve Jobs, both in terms of Jobs' work and having come to know members of his staff and family who were involved in the film. A good portion of the track is also dedicated to the difference between fiction and reality, and how to bridge that gap without losing authenticity. After listening to Boyle's track I wondered what more Sorkin would have to add, but it's also engaging, with Sorkin serving almost as a moderator, interviewing Graham about the challenges that he faced on the project. Graham responds in kind, with most of Sorkin's insight about researching and developing the project coming as responses to Graham's questions.

The disc concludes with "Inside Jobs: The Making of Steve Jobs" (44:11), a three-part documentary about the making of the movie. Here, you get additional insights from the cast on the challenges of the project, with discussion revealing the rehearsal period between each segment and how crucial that was for the cast in terms of being able to learn their lines, and it delves deeper in terms of explaining how the movie's fictionalization of events can be constructed out of reality. The only disappointing thing about this, and the commentaries, in regard to the bonus features as a whole, is the lack of deleted scenes. Boyle mentions at least one significant cut scene on the commentary (a scene in the first segment with Pforzheimer), at least a couple of more (including the Mac successfully saying "hello" at the first launch) appear in the documentary -- hell, there's even one on the packaging (a shot on the back of Jobs sitting on the roof of the parking garage with his daughter). That one additional supplement would've rounded out the package, even though the materials included are pretty good.

Although Steve Jobs can't nail down an ending as emotionally satisfying as it is dramatically satisfying, don't let lack of interest in the subject or the poor showing at the box office scare you away. This is a crackling, energetic, exhilarating bit of drama that holds up even through its rough patches. The Blu-ray comes with some decent extras as well, evne if deleted scenes would have perfected the package. Highly recommended.

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