By Eleanor Ringel Cater
“Steve Jobs” is a peculiar, thrilling and audacious film about a peculiar, thrilling and audacious man. And I can’t understand why no one wants to see it.
After a limited release in early October, the picture opened wide (as they say in The Biz) in about 2,411 theaters. But instead of going through the roof – as the studio clearly expected, given the sizable theater bookings – “Steve Jobs” stalled at 7th place in that all-important opening weekend box office.
This is despite very positive reviews and marquee-worthy stars – Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Seth Rogen and Jeff Daniels.
A mere week or two later, the movie was pulled from 2,072 theaters. That just doesn’t happen to a prestige picture with Oscar buzz.
But it has.
“Steve Jobs” is only playing at a handful of theaters around town – perhaps even fewer by the time you read this.
I have no idea what went wrong, but you should get to this movie – right now – before it slides off into Netflix/Redbox oblivion.
“Steve Jobs” is an intense, sharply observed character study, not a traditional womb-to-tomb biopic. Aaron Sorkin, one of the smartest writers in Hollywood (“The Social Network,” “The West Wing”), has divided the picture into three “acts.” (By the way, that’s one of the galvanizing aspects of the film: It’s so theatrical, it could be on stage.)
Each segment takes place before a new product launch. The first is in 1984, as Jobs (Fassbender) is about to introduce the Macintosh. It’s mere days after the ad that rocked the Super Bowl and the excitement is volcanic. But backstage, there’s mostly last-minute panic.
An essential part of the demonstration – the Mac saying “Hello” – isn’t working.
And … Jobs’ former girlfriend (Katherine Waterston) has shown up with Lisa, the little girl he refuses to acknowledge as his.
And … Steve “Woz” Wozniak (Rogen), Jobs’ former partner (and the real brains behind Mac) has dropped by for a little passive-aggressive face-time.
And … John Sculley (Daniels), the former Pepsi CEO who’s now the head of Apple, offers an ambiguous father-figure presence, as well as a pre-show glass of very expensive wine.
Then someone mentions “Andy” and Jobs explodes, “Which Andy?” (Spoiler: it’s always the same Andy, a behind-the-scenes tech wizard.)
The only one who holds it together is Jobs’ right-hand woman, Joanna Hoffman (Winslet, deservedly gunning for a Best Supporting Actress nomination). She gets her boss’s yin/yang personality – part Bob Dylan, part Donald Trump – even if she doesn’t always approve of it.
Then it’s 1988. Jobs has been ousted from Apple and is launching his new “baby” – the quixotic and doomed (perhaps intentionally?) NeXT Computer. The usual suspects show up; the same encounters, slightly altered, occur.
Finally, we jump ahead to 1998 and the true beginning of the irresistible rise of Steve Jobs. The product this time is the iMac – and we all know how that turned out (though, in one wonderful exchange, the now 19-year-old Lisa dismisses it as looking like “Judy Jetson’s Easy-Bake Oven”).
In an odd way, “Steve Jobs” – possibly the clunkiest title imaginable for a movie – echoes one of Shakespeare’s history plays. We may have no idea who the real Richard III was, but we certainly recognize the malevolent humpback who utters, “Now is the winter of our discontent.”
Sorkin and his director, Danny Boyle (the Oscar-winning “Slumdog Millionaire”), see Jobs as the same sort of mythic figure. Yes, there are concrete facts scattered throughout the movie. For one, Jobs was adopted. For another, Jobs told Time Magazine that the blood test regarding his being Lisa’s father basically means 28 percent of American males could be, too.
But overall, this is an artfully crafted impression of Jobs – an artistic rendering, if you will. The launch events provide the structure, but the essence is in the personal confrontations. An example: Every time Woz shows up, the encounter begins affectionately and ends in acrimony
Fassbender’s performance is, quite simply, astonishing. It’s not just a matter of showing us the transition between the bow-tied nerd, circa 1984, and the jeans/black turtleneck conjurer of 1998. The actor also shows us what has changed inside – a hardened ambition that, nonetheless, still feels tied to the spirit of the counterculture. In one funny/sad scene, he and Woz argue over who is the Ringo in their relationship, and who is the John.
By the film’s final act, Fassbender has transformed himself into the iconic image of Jobs we all know: Reed thin, rimless glasses, blue jeans, mock turtleneck. And while we may not know the absolute unshakable truth about any of this – the “just the facts, ma’am” aspect – we feel we’ve met Steve Jobs and taken his journey. Part whiz kid, part wizard, part genius, part jerk, he is an essential piece of Americana. And what his legacy is – or will be – remains an open question.