Steve Jobs was innovative, creative, driven, dogged and inestimably intelligent. But was he an interesting person?
Judging by Steve Jobs, a feature film meticulously scripted by Aaron Sorkin and studiously crafted by Danny Boyle, the answer is…maybe not? Kind of? It’s hard to tell what the filmmakers think, let alone what you’re supposed to after spending two hours with him. As enlivened with dazzling intensity by Michael Fassbender, the Jobs of this film vociferously berates his coworkers, belittles his female colleague and confidant Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet) and rejects all notions of responsible parenting. Yet by the end, he is redeemed, or at least validated.
The movie doesn’t provide insight into how he gets there, nor does it transcend the limitations of its genre. The first two acts set up a fascinating story of a man overcoming professional setbacks without even the barest hint of interpersonal skills, but the third act doesn’t nail the dismount. What’s left is a cheap and lazily rendered stab at sentimentality that’s supposed to make you feel bad for a guy who spent the previous two-thirds of the movie alienating everyone around him – and you. Instead, you just feel bad for the people who will accept this cop-out as honest.
Many of the movie’s problems seem to stem from its structure, which is deliberately artificial and yet not rigorous enough to sustain the artifice. The story is comprised of three acts of approximately equal length. Each follows Steve and those close to him in the minutes leading up to one of his signature addresses to the public: the launch of the first Macintosh computer (1984), the debut of Jobs’ first major product as the CEO of NeXt (1988), and the triumphant leap into the future with the iMac (1998). Boyle and Sorkin concern themselves (almost) exclusively with what happens before Steve walks onstage, cutting to the exposition bridge that leads to the next act just before Steve starts talking to the audience.
This three-act structure seems better suited to the stage than the screen. Plenty of contrivance lands all of the same major figures in Steve’s life in his orbit just before he goes onstage at these three different events, including Joanna, Lisa, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), technician Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg) and, most improbably, Apple CEO John Scully (Jeff Daniels). I’d overlook the contrivance if the payoff outweighed it. But the three-act structure doesn’t build to a coherent resolution, and Sorkin’s script, for all of the fizzy vitality of its dialogue, cheats on the three-scene gambit with flashbacks that illuminate by blinding spotlight what’s happening in the main timeline. If even the person who came up with the conceit think it’s a suitable mechanism for the story this movie wants to tell, how are we supposed to feel any different?
Many of Sorkin’s most derided tics crop up in one form or another, from the dreaded White Man Speechifying to the tried-and-true dynamic between a troubled male genius and his competent female associate. When Steve hurls another demeaning insult at one of his staffers or dismisses his daughter yet again with a haughty wave of his hand, I didn’t know whether to laugh or gasp. Neither seems appropriate, perhaps because Boyle’s typically mobile camera and his relentless employment of close-ups immerses us to the point of confusion. Unlike in The Social Network, when both Sorkin and director David Fincher led the audience to regard Mark Zuckerberg with a potent mixture of awe and disgust, the characterization of Jobs here lacks the depth of intersecting personalities. He’s either a raging tool or kind of a genius, but almost never both at the same time.
And yet, in spite of its failures as an exploration of Jobs’ personality and legacy, Steve Jobs has plenty of surface pleasures to offer along the way. Jobs acts monstrous throughout the movie, and Fassbender’s electrifying performance never lets you forget it. Surrounding him, the supporting cast is full of gems. Winslet is a particular revelation, revealing toughness and vulnerability alike from under a series of regrettable wigs. Whatever you think about the persona he’s honed over the years, Rogen is as warm and affable as his beard is scruffy. Daniels is saddled with the Sorkin-iest of Sorkin lectures, but he does well with what he’s given. And below the marquee, Michael Stuhlbarg and Katherine Waterston add touches of humanity to people on the margins of Jobs’ mind, even when they ought to have been at the forefront. Boyle’s direction, while perhaps out of step with Sorkin’s narrow vision, lends dynamism to even the most mundane backstage exchanges.
But the movie feels emptier than it should for a story that’s so compelling on its surface. It’s possible that Jobs himself just isn’t unique enough to sustain a feature film, or that the history of Apple might have made for richer dramatic fodder. This movie is slick, shiny and fun, but you’ll leave without a more complex understanding of how this man fits into Apple’s universe, let alone your own. (Yes, the first thing I did when the movie ended was turn on my iPhone to check for missed messages.)
As sacrilegious as it feels to end on this note, I will anyway: maybe the ill-conceived Ashton Kutcher drama and this year’s Alex Gibney documentary — alas, neither of which I’ve seen — were all the Jobs we needed.