12 Years a Slave, 127 Hours, aaron sorkin, Apple, Atticus Ross, Daniel Pemberton, Danny Boyle, iMac, inglourious basterds, Kate Winslet, Katherine Waterston, Macintosh, Michael Fassbender, Michael Mann, Michael Stuhlbarg, NEXT, Russell Crowe, Seth Rogen, Shame, Sigur Ros, Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, The Insider, The Social Network, Trent Reznor, Walter Isaacson
Michael Mann’s The Insider, which features Russell Crowe as a rightfully nervous whistleblower to big tobacco, has a scene where Crowe is sitting in a furnished room as the wall opposite him ripples and shimmers, revealing itself to be a distant beach, a sanctuary for our addled hero. It’s a highly artful director’s move, injecting billowing impressionism into the otherwise somber and clinical procedures at play in the narrative. It proves to be a beautiful move and is the sort of considered yet playful trick one wishes more Hollywood directors would entertain – embracing the atmospheric theatricality of the stage and the canvas to tell their moving stories.
Not one to shy away from the unorthodox, if not the downright visceral, Danny Boyle employs a very similar tactic to make manifest the lofty dialogue of Aaron Sorkin’s latest tech-titan tete-a-tete, Steve Jobs. Having recently conquered the embryonic stages of social media’s reigning heavyweight, Sorkin turns his attention towards crafting a character piece of Walter Isaacson’s popular biography of the Apple figurehead. Since Mr. Sorkin’s stock in trade is clever barbs offered as artillery, and there is nary an action scene or fistfight available, to fashion a visual story from voluminous pages of dialogue is the challenge. Luckily, Mr. Boyle was able to successfully create a frenetic movie out of the premise of a man being trapped in a crevasse for five days. Which is to say, challenge accepted.
In the scene in question in this movie, Steve Jobs (Michael Fassbender) is having a discussion with his Polish-American associate, Joanna (Kate Winslet), who’s Eastern European origins serve as the punchline to more than a few jokes regarding her own perceived lack of humor. He is attempting to convey the dreamer’s rationale behind his latest venture and struggling with her straight-laced assessment of a seemingly failed project. While a typical director would use this as an opportunity for a close-up, to play up either the wounded or proselytizing angles, or allow the music to cheesily swell (and the music does rise, to be sure, but I can’t say enough about Daniel Pemberton’s eclectic score – like Reznor and Ross’s work on the Sorkin-penned The Social Network, the arrangements oscillate between unabashedly triumphant, ala Sigur Ros’ rousing contribution to Mr. Boyle’s 127 Hours, to deliberately bouncy and playful, with mood pieces residing between and all seeming part of a whole). What happens instead, however, is a medium focus take on the conversation in portrait as the walls behind the principals comes alive. Jobs likens his latest venture (the middle segment of a three-act structure the script employs as we, the audience, follow the backstage machinations just prior to three mammoth product launches in Jobs’ career) to the historical Skylab project, launched without specific plans for how to bring it down safely, only the misplaced confidence that the ensuing years of the trip would allow those on the ground time enough to craft a solution. As Jobs marvels at the audacity required to launch something like that while lacking an endgame, the hallway is illuminated with ignition flames and huge plumes of exhaust, a seeming eruption bookending the characters as they’re forced to deal with the real limitations of what they’re working with. It wouldn’t be out of place on a stage and I’m glad those involved didn’t think to keep it relegated to one. The Skylab reference has tie ins to the plot as written, and could even be seen as part of a larger comment on the world which Jobs and his colleagues and competitors have erected for us. He and his successors would continue on their parade of upgrades and reveals and launches, but to what end? Are they hoping the interim, some breather between models, will provide sufficient breathing room for an end-goal epiphany to register?
But that’s all a bit philosophical for a movie that admirably ignores the existential aspect of what its protagonist has helped streamline. And while we’re not privy to the launches surrounding the most recent products (the screenplay concerns itself with the Macintosh, NEXT and iMac), we still get to witness the mania surrounding each career milestone and appreciate the subtle improvements in performance from all around. Early glitches from the Macintosh are ironed out by the time of the iMac, though in the spirit of history repeating a simple failed voice command during the initial launch resurrects itself as numerous iterations of an image for the final. To complement this steady march towards technological progress, Boyle and company saddle each segment with a unique film stock, lending some very tangible polish so by the time we’re seeing a performance in the famous jeans and black turtleneck, we’ve already entered at 16MM, upgraded to 35MM and are now settling in for digital. The effect works tremendously well, rough edges all around eventually giving way to sleeker visuals, if less heart.
Outside of a terrific Fassbender, who demonstrated loquacious charm in Shame and Inglourious Basterds, and certainly twisted depravity in 12 Years a Slave, here bringing them together with a calculatedly angular playfulness, the supporting cast is uniformly strong. Winslet’s Polish accent comes and goes as does her affection for Jobs, but ultimately remains his moral center in one of those thankless, undyingly loyal aide roles. Seth Rogen doesn’t add too much to this repertoire of decent wise-asses, but as written he handles the frustrated Wozniack quite well. Of the smaller roles, while Katherine Waterston is good and Michael Stuhlbarg welcomely brings A Serious Man’s Larry Gopnik forward a few decades, the supporting standout is Jeff Daniels. An expert at Sorkin’s dialogue at this point, and now with enough decades in the business to give John Scully the lived-in wisdom and weary he needed, Daniels alternates from charming, exasperated, furious, content, all primarily through dialogue. It’s rare for a performance, in the shouty/pouty tradition which wins awards, to be so many things at once and yet remain so professionally restrained. He has the quiet intensity and power of delivery, like when a parent says they’re not mad just disappointed. And by all accounts his particular child (parent references abound) gave him plenty to be disappointed about over the years. There are enough encounters throughout the movie to suggest, as biographies and anecdotal evidence no doubt support, that Jobs was a difficult man to work for and with. It’s likely history will be kind and usher him into the realm of obstinate geniuses whose singular pursuits in one arena left scorched earth in several others. If this is a first pass (ignoring TV movies and the output of Mr. Kutcher) at a visual legacy, it could certainly be worse. What we ultimately end up with is a stitched together glimpse of the craziness on three of the busiest days of the man’s life, days which would fundamentally alter the trajectory of Apple and Silicon Valley. And while certainly not a hagiography of the man, the ending does allow some sense of paternal closure, reminding, or perhaps telling for the first time, his daughter that she hasn’t gone unnoticed. Not exactly something one would put on a Hallmark card, to be sure, but it makes a fair enough point that paying attention goes a long way. Perhaps not unlike John Nash in A Beautiful Mind, the acknowledgment may not always register, but he’s always listening.