The 20th century saw the rise of many successful American icons, but none of them changed the world in quite the same way Steve Jobs did. The former Apple CEO invented the notion of a user friendly interface and eventually found a way to put it in our pockets and has quickly been mythologized as one of the definitive minds of our time. Since his death in 2011, the man has already been written into countless books and even received two big screen adaptions. His immediate legacy is undeniable, but with so little time to reflect and understand the curious life that was, is Hollywood really prepared to tell us the story behind the man?
Steve Jobs is broken into three acts with each taking place immediately before the launch of a new Apple product. The key scenes are set leading up to launch of the Macintosh(1984), the announcement of the NeXT(1988), and Job’s return to Apple with the iMac(1998). Leading up to each event, Steve(Michael Fassbender) is faced with a few of the closest people in his life including workmate Joanna Hoffman(Kate Winslet), his old friend Steve Wozniac(Seth Rogen), his mentor and Apple CEO John Sculley(Jeff Daniels), and his daughter Lisa. In these confrontations we witness Jobs at his most eccentric as he wrestles with personal conflict in preparation for each announcement.
The film’s distinct three act narrative sounds painfully constrictive, but thanks to a strong cast and a highly energized(if polarizing) script, Steve Jobs never dares to bore. With very little in the way of eventful action, the movie feel less like a Hollywood production and more like a glorified stage production put on camera. It’s a tight premise that demands creativity and high impact from the performances and writing team and it doesn’t disappoint.
Fans of writer Aaron Sorkin’s other work on The Social Network, The Newsroom, or The West Wing will be in very familiar territory thanks to a a script that’s loaded with the smart, smirk, and snappy dialog we’ve all come to expect. It makes for a highly kinetic experience with every character rambling through paragraphs of dialog at an unapologetic pace. For viewers up to the challenge of keeping up, this makes for a highly engaging experience that’s unlike any you’ll see on the big screen this year.
The rapid-fire writing and delivery style is undeniably impressive, but it comes at the cost of the supporting characters. While each of these seasoned actors read through the density of the script with applaudable finesse, they’re inevitably boiled down to variations of the same voice meant to serve as a mouthpiece for Sorkin’s own ideas. This is a powerful tool when Steve is reflecting on his abstract ideas or creative decisions, but is far less impactful or believable when the man is attempting to have a one-on-one with his nine year old daughter. None of these characters act like real people, but rather like idealistic constructs meant to argue with each other.
At this point, it’s part of the quid pro quo audiences have agreed to when watching an Aaron Sorkin scripted movie. He may not be the director, but his script carries more weight and vision than Danny Boyle‘s touches on the movie. Despite bringing some some really nice aesthetic choices to the table with set design and cinematography, Boyle’s direction is surprisingly mute when compared his other most recent work. Unlike Fincher who brought a darker twist to The Social Network‘s already ironic script, Boyle seems reduced to a point and shoot director meant to highlight Sorkin’s ideas.
Michael Fassbender is given the impossible task of showing us the human side of a totally detestable protagonist. The actor shows up to do what he’s alway done the best by performing the burdened gentlemen who is never quite living in the present. His mind is always in four different places and his bitter anger at the world for not understanding his seemingly outrageous ideas always lies just below the surface of his egocentric persona. It’s undeniably the most interesting take on the character of Steve Jobs we’ve seen to date, but somehow I can’t shake the feeling that we don’t know the character anymore at the end of the movie than we did at the beginning.
There are several attempts throughout the film to dig into the heart of what drives Jobs’ creative god-complex through his relationships with other characters. Early in the movie, Scully begs the question of whether or not it’s his rejected adoption and other characters like Andy Hertzfeld(Michael Stuhlbarg) insist it’s his desire to be disliked. Each of the supporting characters are intended to demonstrate different aspects of the Jobs in their recurring visits over time, but ultimately none of them hit the pressure points the audiences needs in order to understand what makes this guy tick. It’s an especially frustrating problem in the final act when the movie attempts to reign his character back in as an admirable person. The movie scratches at the surface of this guy over and over again, but it never really cracks this character or what drives him to want reconciliation in the film’s final moments.
It’s hard to fault Fassbender who shows up with his A-game by selling each and every line of dialog like it’s the answer to world peace. He’s present and doing some of the best work of his career, but even his charisma can’t overcome some of the script’s inherent issues. The rest of the cast are also all hands on deck to act the heck out of this movie. Jeff Daniels and Kate Winslet turn in particularly noteworthy performances as Jobs’ closest confidants.
Steve Jobs has all of the ingredients for an Oscar winning recipe, but something didn’t fit the mix just right. The production is top notch, the cast has never been better, and the script is as sharp as ever even when it overindulges in its fatal Sorkinisms. In the end, the fundamental problem is that we just don’t “get” Steve Jobs or what drives this character to create, debate, or reconcile his greatest accomplishments and failures. No matter how thrilling or engaging all of the chatter may be, none of it can overcome the fact that this biopic simply does not understand its titular figure. Despite this being the most fascinating interpretation of the character, we have yet to see the definitive Steve Jobs story on the big screen.
Despite the issues, this is still a must see for film goers looking for something a little different this Oscar season. It’s a highly polished production with enough talent and moments of brilliance to demand a matinee viewing from even the most casual of filmgoers who have a taste for great character drama.