The best film I saw at this year’s Telluride Film Festival was surprisingly the film I thought for better or for worse would represent Hollywood at its most mediocrely mainstream. I always knew that “Steve Jobs” would be a good film—but I felt it wouldn’t be great because at best it couldn’t be much more than a retread of “The Social Network”’s themes portrayed by an all-star cast chosen not for their talent, but for their box office revenue, and who this time didn’t even have David Fincher to direct them. I thought surely one of the numerous, purer, more independent films I saw at the festival would be more legitimate, at the very least on principle. Boy was I wrong.
This is a film that first and foremost cares about exemplifying bravura filmmaking at every single level. Of course, it all starts with Aaron Sorkin’s magnificent script that has already pre-bought its Oscar. The basic rule of thumb is that one page of script usually translates into a minute of screen time (e.g. a 120 page script translates into a 2 hour movie). The movie does run two hours, but the script runs a whopping near-200 pages, which means the actors rush at a breakneck speed to fit every last drop of mind-blowing syntactical gymnastics in.
It translates into one of the most energetic cinematic feats I’ve seen in a while. The word play is nothing short of Shakespearean—though that should come as no surprise, given that Sorkin has long been established as one of the most unique screenwriters working today. The actors spit out dialogue as if they’re firing a machine gun with endless rounds—the audience almost feels assaulted, which is exactly how an audience should feel when confronted with cinema. A film should make an audience feel something, and feel it strongly to the exclusion of all other reality. When you’re watching “Steve Jobs,” all your brain has the energy to think about is “Steve Jobs.”
The structure of the film is also quite daring, and very antithetical to the average biopic. Instead of a comprehensive portrait of Jobs’ life, Sorkin chooses to net the film down to three real-time scenes—essentially three acts of a chamber play.
Each scene portrays the behind-the-scenes lead-up to the launch of a new product that for better or for worse mark a turning point in Jobs’ career. Each one beautifully plays into a classical three-act structure: 1984’s Macintosh (his rise), 1988’s NeXT Computer (his fall), and 1998’s iMac (his return to glory). Cinematographer Alwin H. Kuchler visually differentiates each segment by shooting in a different format—’84 is grainy 16mm, ’88 is clean, rich 35mm, and ’98 is antiseptic Arri Alexa digital.
Michael Fassbender plays Jobs not as a serious SNL impersonation (which is how too many of these biopics performances go), but rather as a man. Sure, he manages to transform into the Jobs we publicly know by the final segment, but Fassbender doesn’t care if he sounds or looks like Jobs really did. All he cares about is convincingly expressing the fierce passion and energy that drove this genius to become one of the most influential figures of the 20th(?) century.
The ace in the hole here, however, is director Danny Boyle, who with this has made his best film since 2008’s Best Picture winner “Slumdog Millionaire” (though to be fair, having made “127 Hours” and “Trance” in between, that’s not really saying much). Boyle is a very interesting director—when he’s on fire, he’s on fire (e.g. “Trainspotting”), but when he’s not, he’s not (e.g. “A Life Less Ordinary’”). In this case, he is one of the few directors who can visually match the energy Sorkin spouts with his words.
Whereas “The Social Network” felt far more Sorkinian than Fincher-esque, Boyle’s voice here is equally clear. From little touches like Jobs’ daughter’s aqua-blue dress identically matching the car she drives (an image right out of “Trance”), to surrealistic fantasies of a multi-colored dressed crowd creating a wave that seemingly comes out of the same imagination that inspired Trainspotting’s toilet, you constantly feel his masterful hand molding the basic clay Sorkin set out on the page.
Boyle also introduces fascinating directorial flourishes that I’ve never seen before. One that struck me in particular occurs during a scene when Jobs worries whether the hard drive of the NeXT Computer will crash during the presentation. In the span of a ten second conversation with his assistant Joanna (Kate Winslet – who probably is the weak link of the film, if there is one), where Jobs says “if it crashes, it crashes,” the word ‘crash’ is used 5 times, and each time, right on the dot, Boyle makes the image subtly digitally sputter out, as if the digital projector showing the film is crashing at that exact moment. It’s a cute little tongue-in-cheek technique, but it’s significant as this is probably the first time I’ve ever seen a director purposefully emulate the faults of digital projection for an effect, a la Tarantino and Rodriguez purposefully emulating 35mm film scratches for Grindhouse. This small, throwaway moment, in my book, represents some of the first time cinema is celebrating digital, flaws and all, as its own thing as opposed to being the cheaper alternative to film projection. Just a thought.
On the whole, the moment you step into the theater when “Steve Jobs” opens (Oct. 9th for NYC and LA, Oct. 23rd Nationwide), you will essentially be snorting a line of uncut creative cocaine. And it’s going to be a trip. A total celebration not only of the man Jobs, but of the filmmaking process itself. When the film peaks at the end of its second act, with a breathless cross-cutting between Jobs getting fired from his company (complete with German Expressionism shadows and rain), while verbally duking it out with John Sculley (Jeff Daniels, an actor born to speak Sorkin’s words if there ever was one) amidst a hall smothered in surreally stacked chairs–you’ll feel as if you’re overdosing on cinema. And that’s what cinema should be–a complete experience to the exclusion of all other reality.