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Steve Jobs
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by Peter Sobczynski

"The Anti-Social Network"
5 stars

Back in my day, if a film included scenes involving a rich, brilliant and occasionally monstrous megalomaniac preparing to lecture his fanatical minions about a new technological creation that he plans to utilize to dominate hearts and minds around the world while cruelly dismissing anyone who even thinks about standing in his path of hoped-for conquest, I would have naturally assumed that James Bond would at some point turn up to halt his plans with some elaborate stuntwork and a few fancy quips before setting off to bed his latest conquest, also utilizing elaborate stuntwork and a few fancy quips. Nowadays, however, not only does the power-mad guy avoid getting brought down by any dashing heroes in the final reel, he actually gets to be the hero of the story himself. Well, at least that is the case with "Steve Jobs," a wildly ambitious, often brilliant, occasionally irritating and compulsively watchable biopic about the late computer visionary that shatters most of the conventions of the genre in much the same way that its subject shattered most conventional wisdom about what could or couldn't be done in the personal computer industry

If you are thinking "Wait--haven't I seen this story before?," the answer is yes and no. On the one hand, Jobs's life and career have served as the basis for a number of films over the years. There was the TV movie "Pirates of Silicon Valley," an examination of the early days of the Microsoft-Apple rivalry that featured Noah Wyle as Jobs, Anthony Michael Hall as Bill Gates and I don't really need to say any more, do I? 2013 saw the release of "Jobs," a standard-issue biopic that featured none other than Ashton Kutcher as Jobs--to be fair, Kutcher clearly made an effort to go beyond his likable goofball persona but was let down somewhat by the fact that every other aspect of the film was simply awful. Earlier this year, there was "Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine," an unauthorized documentary from the relentlessly prolific Alex Gibney that leaned more towards the less savory aspects of his life and career. On the other hand, despite coming after all these other takes on his story, "Steve Jobs" approaches the familiar material in such a striking and intriguing manner that it will almost certainly go down as the definitive take on the tale while consigning those alternate versions to even further obscurity.

Although loosely inspired by Walter Isaacson's jumbo-sized and best-selling biography, the film does not attempt to compress all the highs and lows of Jobs' life into the framework of a two-hour narrative that would inevitably streamline or eliminate a lot of important material along the way. Instead, screenwriter Aaron Sorkin has employed a unique three-part structure in which each section finds Jobs (Michael Fassbender) backstage just before the public unveilings of three products that would have significant impacts on his career and observing him dealing with personal and professional pressures from the same group of people, all of whom can be counted on to pick the worst possible time to barge in on him. The result is a little like a high-tech version of "A Christmas Carol," albeit one where the same ghosts reappear in each iteration and where it is debatable at the end whether or not our hero has in fact learned any lessons at all.

Part 1 takes place in Cupertino, CA in 1984 as Jobs is preparing to reveal the Macintosh to a public that has been especially stoked for it since the broadcast of a groundbreaking Super Bowl commercial a couple of days before. Backstage, however, everything is chaos. The machine is refusing to say "Hello" as hoped and even though Jobs has not publicly promised such an occurrence, he brutally browbeats key system developed Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg) to get it working even though he a.) does not have the time and b.) does not even have the specialized tools required to actually open the machine, the result of Jobs's determination to keep his system from being modified by outsiders. Colleague Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen) turns up to ask him to publicly acknowledge the people working on the Apple II computer, a machine that Jobs hopes to kill with his creation even though it is the product keeping the company in business. He is also visited by his ex-girlfriend Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston) and Lisa (Makenzie Moss), the daughter whose paternity he has publicly and cruelly denied in a Time magazine story (the reason he believes he was denied the cover), and is confronted with the fact that he is worth hundreds of millions while they are on welfare. Helping Jobs keep these plates spinning while getting him to the stage on time is his eternally patient aide-de-camp Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), apparently the only person in the world fully resistant to the endless bursts of snark and condescension that he doles out to virtually anyone he considers to be an inferior.

Although the Macintosh would prove to be an enormously innovative machine, the combination of a high price point and Jobs' insistence on making it a closed system that was stubbornly incompatible with others lead to a disastrous reception in the marketplace and eventually leads his firing in 1985 at the hands of CEO John Scully (Jeff Daniels), whom Jobs brought in to run the company in the first place and who essentially forced Scully's hand with the board of directors to let him go. When the story picks up again, it is 1988 and Jobs is now running a new computer company, NeXT, battling his former colleagues in the press and preparing to launch his latest product, a computer that includes a striking black cube design, a startling $6,500 price tag and. . .well, no one is quite certain of what, if anything, else it has to offer. While waiting to take the stage at the opulent San Francisco Opera House, he finds himself once again sparring with Wozniak, Hertzfeld and Chrisann as well as newly forged combatant Scully, who resents being made the scapegoat for Jobs' departure from Apple and that company's declining fortunes. The lone bright spots are the appearance of Lisa (now played by Ripley Soto), with whom a relationship has grudgingly developed, and the fact that the NeXT computer that looks to be another folly may actually be the first step on the path to his return to his former company.

That does turn out to be the case and by 1998, when the final act is set, he is once again on top and is set to once again revolutionize the computer industry with the introduction of the iMac, a machine that, thanks to technological advances, a reasonable price and exploding interest in that thing known as the Internet, is poised to become a massive success. Despite the fact that everything seems to be going his way, Jobs remains as prickly as ever, to the eternal consternation of Joanna. The resentments that he feels regarding Scully and Wozniak continue unabated--at one point, a frustrated Wozniak blurts out "You can be decent and gifted at the same time--it isn't binary." A bigger and more emotionally-fraught dustup is the one that has cropped up between himself and the now 19-year-old Lisa (Perla Haney-Jardine)--one that is further exacerbated by that long-ago Time article in which he questioned whether he was her father and by the involvement of Hertzfeld. This turns out to be the one contretemps that he cannot simply ignore or steamroll over with bitchiness and condescension and it is only at this point that there is the tiniest suggestion that there is an actual human heart beating inside him after all. (That said, he also uses this moment to begin to formulate what will prove to be his next great innovation, though that is presumably being saved for the sequel.)

On the surface, "Steve Jobs" would seem to be an enormously difficult sell to most audiences--devoted Apple users may find this warts-and-warts approach to be little more than an extremely slick form of character assassination while others may question the wisdom of spending two hours watching one of the most deliberately abrasive people to ever appear front-and-center in a major American film berate, insult and cruelly dismiss virtually everyone around him and become incredibly rich and powerful in the process. And yet, despite all of that, the film itself is a compulsively watchable work that remains compelling despite its fairly chilly emotional tone. Although the structure of Sorkin's screenplay may seem a bit contrived on the surface, it proves to be an inspired choice because while it may not exactly conform to reality, it does allow him to pursue the various aspects of Jobs' life without having to resort to a conventional biopic structure. It also allows him to convey the narrative almost entirely through the chief weapon in his literary arsenal--rapid-fire dialogue coming from characters who are highly intelligent and not afraid to prove it. There is probably three times the amount of dialogue here as in a normal movie but it flows so beautifully that it never feels especially talky. As for the framework, it ultimately proves to be successful because it prevents him for going completely off the rails into self-indulgence by having his characters deliver position papers rather than speak like real people. Most importantly, he manages to examine the things that made him tick--his genius for self-promotion and inspiring others to do their best work, his inability to play by the rules of both business and polite society, his criticism of anyone who fails to live up to his insanely high standards and his inability to admit the times when he does stumble--without either flat-out deifying or condemning him. The result is Sorkin's best work since "The Social Network" and one that even detractors of his signature style will have to admit works brilliantly in this case.

Because of the audacious nature of Sorkin's screenplay, "Steve Jobs" was probably always destined to go down as a writer's movie but director Danny Boyle goes about bringing it to life in equally exciting and innovative ways. Despite the number of formal limitations brought on by the script--a handful of locations and loads of complex dialogue among them--Boyle uses them to his advantage in ways that are fairly electrifying. The pace is absolutely relentless--even the scenes with two people just standing and talking to each other have a palpable drive to them--but Boyle knows how to push just far enough without going too far and turning everything into gibberish. One subtle but effective method that he and cinematographer Alwin Kutcher deploy to present the story in cinematic terms is by electing to shoot in three different and evocative formats--the 1984 scenes are done in 16mm to symbolize Jobs' rough-and-ready beginnings, 1988 is done in a 35mm format that suggest the slick and gleaming look of the NeXT cube and crisp, cool digital for the 1998 sequence and the path to the future that it represents. It sounds like a stylistic mess--the kind that Boyle has been known to indulge in with some of his lesser films--but it works beautifully here. Frankly, this is one of those movie where pretty much everything works and part of the pleasure of watching it comes from seeing all of the pieces come together into one beautiful whole.

In playing Steve Jobs, Michael Fassbender has two giant obstacles to overcome--he does not look a thing like the real-life Jobs (even Ashton Kutcher was slightly closer to the real guy in this regard) and he is on screen for virtually every moment of its running time. Simply put, he nails every aspect of the character and makes him into a compelling presence without ever trying to soften him up in an attempt to make him a more palatable presence. His Jobs is maddening in his unrelenting arrogance and self-assuredness that everything he says or does is correct and it is that authority that he projects through his performance--and not merely by screaming his dialogue--that sucks you in and keeps you watching even when he voluntarily puts himself in the running for the title of World's Worst Human. The other great performance--albeit on a much more subtle level--is the one given by Kate Winslet as Joanna Hoffman. Under normal circumstances, this would be the dullest role in the film--she gets to be the one charged with being the audience proxy and delivering the speeches about Jobs' need to be a better person--but Winslet brings it to life in unexpected ways that are as compelling to watch as Fassbender's more overtly bravura turn and which give the entire film the emotional center that it might have otherwise lacked.

As is pointed out several times during the film, the genius of Steve Jobs did not lie in his skills as a designer, an engineer or as a people person. No, his brilliance came from his ability to attract people who were experts in those areas and convince them to follow his lead to create devices that made great technological bounds but somehow retained a lovable feel to them that stood in stark contrast to the purely functional output of his competitors and made computers and the oncoming technological revolution to be far less scary notions to a public raised on things like HAL from "2001." "Steve Jobs" is a lot like that in that his story, at last, has brought together a number of experts in their respective fields who have come together to create a work that stands in marked contrast to its immediate competitors, transforms the complex ideas it has to share in ways that are easy to grasp without ever being dumbed down and finds the humanity in someone who so often took pains to deny it as much as possible. Steve Jobs may not have been a great person but "Steve Jobs" is a great film.

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originally posted: 10/16/15 09:36:15
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 New York Film Festival For more in the 2015 New York Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 London Film Festival For more in the 2015 London Film Festival series, click here.

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  09-Oct-2015 (R)
  DVD: 16-Feb-2016


  DVD: 16-Feb-2016

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