By: Daniel Reynolds
It’s important to keep this in mind: Steve Jobs designed consumer products. He may have designed the absolute hell out of those consumer products. He may have foreseen a life in which those consumer products were necessary to live. He may have even pushed that future into being. But, base case here, his aim was to sell pieces of plastic and metal to people. He ran Apple, not a city, not a country, not a religion, just another company.
The Steve Jobs of Steve Jobs is a man who designs computers. He asserts he’s invented the future but, as shown over a period of 14 years, is constantly beset by people ready to dispute this claim. As brought to life by Michael Fassbender, Jobs is prickly, prideful, and really when you get down to it, kind of a dick. If they had this word in the 80s, most of what this Jobs says would be classified as “mansplaining.” Since our real life perception of Jobs is of a more kindly sort–all calm tones, black turtlenecks, blue jeans, and a piercing yet friendly gaze–the hook of the film is this incisive behind-the-scenes quality. Steve Jobs takes us behind the curtain, quite literally, on one of the more significant figures of the late 20th and earlier 21st century. The film knows it matters. And while I can downplay the consumer product business all I want, we’re still sitting here with a film written by Oscar winner Aaron Sorkin, directed by Oscar winner Danny Boyle, and filled in with Oscar winner Kate Winslet, Seth Rogen, Jeff Daniels, Michael Stuhlbarg and Katherine Waterston. And I’ve written this on a MacBook.
Steve Jobs takes place largely in three specific moments in time: the 1984 launch of the Macintosh, the 1988 launch of the NeXT, and the 1998 launch of the iMac. There are interstitial flashbacks to other time periods, but for most of the film this is the stage. Looking back, only one of these objects was a success (the iMac), but each played a role in shaping the life and legacy of Jobs. The Macintosh is his opening act–when we were asked to Think Different and imagine the future; the NeXT is Jobs’ game to get back at Apple almost out of spite; and finally the iMac offers the path to redemption. The trick of Sorkin’s script is to condense our understanding of each historical context, while also giving shape to the symbolic meaning of each of these devices and their relationship to Jobs. The result is a lot of words. Fortunately, the words are the best part of Steve Jobs. The dialogue positively sings with zingers, jokes, references, and emotional beats that dial us in to whatever is happening on the screen. Freed from whatever constraints David Fincher (who originally was to direct) may have placed on him, Sorkin gets wild with it. We get a plethora of scenes featuring people walking down endless halls while conversing (a Sorkin staple), we get in your face confrontations, we get piles of pontificating. And you know what, we don’t mind.
Why’s that? Because the acting on display here, from Fassbender on down, is remarkable. Unlike, say, Ashton Kutcher’s Jobs movie, an intelligence radiates from all of the actors involved. For his part, Fassbender brings an exacting, reedy quality to Jobs. The man seethes and soothes equally well, while exerting his force of personality to get what he wants. Across from him, Winslet stands in as Apple’s marketing exec Joanna Hoffman. While it’s hard not to notice the up-tick in her Polish accent as the film moves along, her emotive presence remains unflagging. The troika of beta males around Jobs, Daniels’ John Sculley, Rogen’s Steve Wozniak, and Stuhlbarg’s Andy Hertzfeld, take their turns playing victim and antagonist in Jobs’ ongoing struggle to change the world. All three seize their chance to move and shade the film in surprising and subtle ways. (Rogen in particular nails Wozniak’s mix of wounded pride and scruffy affability.) If there’s a weak link it’s Waterston as Chrisann Brennan. She’s got the one-note, thankless role of the nagging (and troubled) mother of Lisa (played by three actresses over time), the daughter Jobs insists on pretending he doesn’t have. Until, of course, the film needs an all-to-abrupt happy ending. Remember, this movie needs to be about more than just selling computers.
Like most biopics, even ones that eschew the stereotypical birth to death arc as Jobs does, we can only get so far into the truth of the central figure. Despite an unceasing effort, Steve Jobs never quite gets at what exactly makes this man Steve Jobs. Sure, there are some suggestions, and there’s a clever insistence that Jobs’ emotional seclusion is the reason for Apple’s closed system design. There’s also no doubt of Sorkin’s interest in the great/good man dichotomy of Jobs. But the core of the man remains frustratingly unilluminated. Danny Boyle’s direction, for all his artistic flares and flourishes, makes things busy enough in the hope we won’t notice the discrepancy. But instead, his sometimes sloppy work pushes us to notice the gaps in the film’s emotional logic. Boyle is not right for this kind of film. (And one can’t help but wonder what Fincher would have done with it.)
Still, it is very easy to be taken in by Steve Jobs. Like its protagonist, the film has immense confidence and belief in itself. There is a lot of talent on display here. You will want to purchase what it’s selling, even if the pangs of buyer’s remorse never feel far enough away. As a consumer product though, it’s not a revolutionary upgrade. It just does the job.