I’m not sure I can recall another mainstream, non-fantasy, non-scifi movie that has less interest in appearing real than ‘Steve Jobs.’ How much that bothers you will be a matter of personal preference.
Even though there was another movie about former Apple CEO Steve Jobs a couple years ago, this has always been the most anticipated version. Aaron Sorkin, fresh off The Social Network and, uh, The Newsroom, was hired to pen the script based on Walter Isaacson’s authorized biography. Now, the movie drops smack dab in the middle of the Oscar race, generating buzz and drawing positive reviews, but I’m not sure what audiences are going to think about it.
Commendably, Sorkin tries to avoid writing a conventional, cradle-to-grave biopic; he knows those are usually terrible. But he instead structures the movie in three acts, each a 40-minute real-time sequence leading up to the launch of a key product (the Macintosh in 1984, the NeXT Box in 1988, the iMac in 1998). During these periods, a host of conflicts in Jobs’s life come to the forefront, involving the same cast of characters: former partner Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), Apple exec John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), trusted associate Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), and his likely-daughter and her mother Chrisann (Katherine Waterston).
If nothing else, the two hours of this unimaginatively-titled movie fly by in a whirlwind of dialogue. It’s certainly engrossing enough to keep you from checking your phone. But it’s a truly bizarre viewing experience and a hard movie to love–not because of extreme complexity, but because of its unnaturalness and the way it draws attention to itself in the wrong ways.
Director Danny Boyle, in my view, is part of the problem. He’s unable to draw out the humanity in Sorkin’s icy style the way David Fincher did in The Social Network (and not just because of all the times when he cuts off-screen while someone is speaking and lowers the volume of that speech, which causes many sentences to end inaudibly). His maximalist style, which draws words like “kinetic” and “lively” from critics, ruined 127 Hours for me, and too many of its cheesy flaws pop up here. We don’t need to see the word “FIRED!” stamped red on the screen just as a news anchor announces someone’s termination–on account of us not being 9 years old and all. Likewise, there’s a painful moment when two characters are discussing the Skylab project and Boyle decides to superimpose a shot of a space shuttle launch on the wall next to them. It felt like I was watching a soda commercial, or maybe an annoying first-year film school project. But that’s often how I feel with Boyle.
[pullquote]It’s about as unnatural as possible. All movies are fake, but ‘Steve Jobs’ just punts on the concept of trying to convince you otherwise. Everywhere you look, there’s a flashing red light declaring, “This is a movie!”[/pullquote]
All movies are fake, but Steve Jobs just punts on the concept of trying to convince you otherwise. Everywhere you look, there’s a flashing red light declaring, “This is a movie!” I mean, where do I start? It asks a German-Irish actor to play a Californian whom he looks nothing like. It foregrounds every major conflict of its protagonist’s life front and center in the minutes before marketing events. It shows audiences at said events…doing the wave. It displays a slew of side characters who can hardly feel real because they’re so transparently extensions of the protagonist (is Kate Winslet playing a legitimate person, or just someone who revolves around Steve?). And just when you think you’ve gotten past all of these contrivances, you see a clip of a damn space shuttle projected onto a wall behind two bickering characters. I’ll say one thing: you sure don’t have to worry about losing yourself in this movie.
Sorkin also leaves out so many substantial aspects of Jobs’s life that the movie feels frustratingly incomplete–and misguided. Above all, it’s more than a little odd that the film completely ignores the products and decade that truly validated Jobs as the visionary that its existence presumes.
Sorkin has said in interviews that he cared less about which specific products he highlighted than about the way the sequences explored the central relationship between Jobs and his daughter. I know Sorkin has a young daughter himself, but this decision is perplexing. Omitting the era with the iPod and iPhone and iPad unbalances the character; we never see a reason to accept Jobs’s genius, and everything is supposed to revolve around that. Tons of people treat their co-workers badly or have poor relationships with their children; few of them tangibly impact society the way Steve Jobs did. If we don’t see evidence of that impact, what’s the point of all this? Why are we even making a movie about him?
[pullquote]It’s more than a little odd that the film completely ignores the products and decade that truly validated Jobs as the visionary that its existence presumes.[/pullquote]
The end result is a movie that we have to take less seriously as it unfolds. And that’s a shame, because there are sequences that could make you stop what you’re doing and watch even years later. Act II has a breathtaking one where Jobs and Sculley debate his exodus from Apple from the 80s. The editing cuts back and forth between multiple scenes in multiple time periods, the dialogue keeps coming at you, more and more and more, and it’s as exhilarating as any action sequence. I love the line “Artists lead, and hacks ask for a show of hands.” This feels like a more interesting component of Jobs’s life than, say, his concern over not being Time’s ‘Man of the Year’ (a lamentation that consumes a decent chunk of Act I). When Sculley threatens to call for a vote to determine his future and Jobs snarls, “I fucking dare you,” I got chills. You could feel the revenge plot already underway.
In addition, the relationships between Steve and Wozniak and Andy Hertzfeld have a good amount of complexity to them, and the climactic scenes with the daughter do feel like they’re coming from the pen of an actual father, and that matters. The acting is generally solid (although, for me, Fassbender’s voice is too soft to project the kind of intimidation that Jobs was famous for), and Boyle does deserve credit for staging a late showdown with Jobs on an auditorium stage and Woz 20 rows up in the crowd, onlookers all around them—a great way to heighten the tension. (Jobs demanding the extras stay and eavesdrop makes sense; it’s as though he wants to ensure that everyone hears his side of the story.)
There’s too much talent here to dismiss the movie altogether, but it’s just so damn gimmicky and artificial. The drama is alternately inconsequential and earth-shattering (carping about magazine covers just before facing a paternity challenge makes for a strange tone), trapped in a structure that doesn’t allow anything to breathe, minimized by dialogue that’s nice, but not transcendent. (“You can be decent and a genius at the same time” feels a little too blatantly on-the-nose for one of the best screenwriters in the world.)
If there’s anything you do learn about Steve Jobs from this movie, it’s how much he believed in creating things. You get the sense that he knew he couldn’t enrich people’s lives via empathy and compassion, but that he could with his ingenuity. It’s no coincidence that he only starts showing an interest in his daughter after she starts showing an interest in his computer. I’m not sure whether the movie wants you to think this, but that fact might be the most damning of all.
(Images courtesy of Universal Pictures Twitter account.)