Silver Screen: Steve Jobs ***1/2
Steve Jobs is a biopic about the late, lionized Apple cofounder, written by Aaron Sorkin, directed by Danny Boyle, and starring Michael Fassbender, who is onscreen for nearly every minute of the film’s two hours. But ultimately this isn’t a Michael Fassbender movie or a Danny Boyle movie or even a Steve Jobs movie— it’s all about Aaron Sorkin.
Sorkin, an acclaimed playwright turned in-demand screenwriter and showrunner, has developed a distinct style that runs through television shows Sports Night, The West Wing, and The Newsroom, and onto the big screen in The Social Network. He’s the master of the walk-and-talk, which adds visual dynamism to his chatty scripts, and favors the musicality of stylized, rapid-fire dialogue.
These Sorkinisms seem ideally suited to a potentially dry, cerebral story about a computer genius. Certainly it worked for The Social Network, which imbued a series of depositions and business arguments with the intensity of a thriller.
But in Steve Jobs, Sorkin has envisioned a way to force real characters into his dramatic template rather than employing his own considerable abilities to convey the subtle dramas of a true story.
The writer begins with an intriguing structure. Jobs’s life actually fits pretty nicely into the traditional biopic formula, with his rise, fall, return, and equally tragic/inspirational conclusion. Instead, Sorkin structures the film around three public presentations at pivotal points in the tech innovator’s career.
Each of the three clearly demarcated acts consists of the half-hour or so before a speech, where several figures from Jobs’s (Fassbender) past show up— rather inconsiderately— to demand something of him before he takes the stage.
Revolutionary computer engineer and Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen) haunts the halls like a good-natured ghost, offering support and seeking approval from his former colleague despite the other Steve’s lack of outward appreciation. Apple chief executive officer John Scully (Jeff Daniels) goes from Jobs’s partner to enemy to secret confidante. Much-abused subordinate Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg) assists with the first presentation, then comes around to check on his prickly friend’s personal life. And Jobs’s volatile ex-girlfriend Chrisann (Katherine Waterston) comes with a little girl in tow, Lisa, the daughter he at first denies then comes to love. (Lisa is played by a trio of actresses at ages five, nine, and nineteen, culminating with Perla Haney-Jardine.)
Through it all, Jobs is aided by his right-hand woman, self-described “work wife” Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), a steely, Polish-born businesswoman who’s apparently the only person to garner his consistent respect.
The obvious objection to Steve Jobs is to lament its stilted theatricality. By building the film around the three presentations, Sorkin limits the timeframe and confines most of the action to the dressing rooms and rear hallways of performance spaces— not coincidentally the setting of all but one of his television shows. It forces him to create the implausible scenario of the same handful of people petulantly bothering Jobs just moments before an important public speech. It also instigates an astonishing amount of expositional dialogue. Perhaps never in cinema have so many characters spent so much time explaining things to one another that they already should know, yet Sorkin mostly camouflages it; perhaps his greatest asset as a playwright is turning expository babble into an artform.
The bigger issue is that both history and the characters’ motivations appear to exist only to service Sorkin’s dramatic agenda. Sorkin’s interest in Jobs seems to stem from what a conveniently Sorkin-esque character he is. This Jobs is the classic Sorkin tyrant-hero, a brash and inspired man orbited by a group of eager subordinates. Those who can withstand the intense heat of his personality are rewarded with crumbs of insight spilling down from on high. This Steve Jobs isn’t Steve Jobs, he’s Will McAvoy, Mark Zuckerberg, and Jed Bartlett.
Amalgams of other Sorkin characters litter the film. Lisa is the same tagalong conscience Elizabeth Moss provided as The West Wing’s presidential daughter, while Joanna Hoffman takes on the favored Sorkin role of Flinty, Brusque Woman Whose Feminine Unflappability Facilitates a Male Genius (see Sports Night’s Felicity Huffman, The Newsroom’s Emily Mortimer, The West Wing’s Allison Janney).
That’s not to say Sorkin’s formula isn’t formidable, or that Steve Jobs isn’t a treat to watch. Remove the fact that it’s ostensibly trying to capture some semi-objective historical truths and the movie is a smart, funny, impressively intense portrait of a business genius struggling with his need for constant perfection. It’s worth watching for the zippy dialogue alone, such as Jobs’s acerbic self-defense of his ego: “God sent his only son on a suicide mission, but we love him anyway because he made trees.”
Boyle is hamstrung by the movie’s limited staging. There’s only so much aesthetic pizzazz you can bring to people arguing in small rooms. His presence is felt mostly in the transitions between acts, especially the dreamlike image of young Lisa wandering backstage through a curtain of gauzy ballet skirts. Boyle sneaks in a few of his trademark color-saturated images, like a gorgeous overhead shot of a crowded theater that turns a clapping audience into a kinetic painting. He does great work— and unlike Sorkin, Boyle is willing to let his own style be subservient to the material.
Fassbender is a tremendous performer but only captures Steve Jobs a bit in the third act, when he trims back dyed-gray hair and dons the iconic black turtleneck. It’s not just the costuming, though. Only here, playing a slightly softer and more enlightened Jobs, he conjures the spirit of an ego-driven nerd king. For the first two-thirds of the movie he looks and sounds like a rockstar superhero, not a slouching, introverted tycoon.
Though technically a far inferior film, the similarly titled 2013 biopic Jobs put forth a better if more perfunctory effort at imparting more of the salient facts about the Apple visionary, as well as his sources of inspiration. Laugh all you want, but while Ashton Kutcher is a pop-culture punchline and Fassbender an indie favorite, it’s the former That Seventies Show star who at least attempted to disappear into a role that demands some deference.
Steve Jobs is a fine movie. It’s just not a great movie about Steve Jobs.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.