Directed by Danny Boyle
Written by Aaron Sorkin
Starring Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Seth Rogan, Jeff Daniels, Michael Stuhlbarg and Katherine Waterson
Geniuses, as far as the movies have portrayed them, are not personable or often even likable. This has been demonstrated time and time again in films like A Beautiful Mind, The Imitation Game, The Aviator and The Social Network. Now we have another unlikable genius with Steve Jobs. Written by Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network) and directed by Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, Slumdog Millionaire), Steve Jobs works against the typical biopic (pronounced bio-pic, not bi-opic) by setting the film in a 14-year window and only giving us what happens to Jobs (Michael Fassbender) before three pivotal points in his career and giving us snippets of flashback to give some context to a couple of conversational threads.
The film starts with Jobs 40 minutes away from launching the original Mac in 1984 and encountering a glitch in the demo, rendering it unable to say ‘Hello’. He tasks system engineer Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg) with fixing it in that timeframe and proceeds to his dressing room where he addresses several problems with his assistant/head of marketing Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), not the least of which is an ex-girlfriend Chrisann (Katherine Waterson) and his daughter Lisa (first played at 5 by Makenzie Moss, then at 9 by Ripley Sobo and at 19 by Perla Haney-Jardine), whom he denies is his, while also speaking to fellow Apple founder Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogan) and CEO John Sculley (Jeff Daniels) all before he debuts the machine he feels will change the world. When it doesn’t, he’s pushed out of Apple and he starts his own company in 1989, NeXT, and he’s faced with similar confrontations before that launch, and then again at the launch of the iMac in 1998. The conversations range from being about the product that is launching to his tumultuous relationship with his daughter and all points in between including his forced departure from Apple and his scheme to get back in.
If this seems a little repetitive to you, you’re right, on paper it is. Jobs even notes at one point that everyone always seems to want to air their grievances with him right before a product launch. The thing that keeps it from being monotonous is Sorkin’s lively screenplay and Boyle’s brisk direction. Sorkin eschews the typical biopic formula going from the inception or even childhood of the subject and leading them to their greatest triumphs and failures to ultimately leave the viewer with a generally positive feeling about the subject by giving us samplings of Jobs’ life through these backstage conversations and brief flashbacks. He packs everything we need to know into the dialogue, which is standard for Sorkin, who has such a distinctive writing style that his screenplays usually trump any directorial stamp or actor’s interpretation of his characters (much in the same way a Woody Allen or Coen Brothers script is almost instantly identifiable even if they didn’t direct the pictures). His structuring here is both the film’s greatest asset and greatest weakness. While foregoing much of the standard formatting we’re used to when seeing someone’s life portrayed on screen is refreshing and invigorating, there is something inherently uncinematic about people standing around talking (though some great cinema has been produced with just those elements, even just one person talking like in Robert Altman’s great film Secret Honor, which originated on stage). No one can write quite like Sorkin, with his rapid-fire dialogue and gift for making it all comprehensible, but here it was just a little too much and held the film back from reaching any great heights.
That wasn’t for lack of trying from director Boyle, though. Known as a flashy filmmaker, he’s more subdued here than he’s ever been but that doesn’t mean he’s not working hard. Sorkin’s script is breathlessly written and Boyle blocks, cuts and frames accordingly, infusing the look with as much energy as the sound. There is never anything boring about what’s going on, despite it being people standing around talking (and walking and talking, another Sorkin trademark). Boyle does put in some flourishes here and there, subtly showing something in the background that correlates to what Jobs is saying. He certainly takes a back seat to Sorkin, but he does pipe up from time to time.
Faring much better with Sorkin’s screenplay are Fassbender and Winslet, though that should come as no surprise since they are two of the finest actors working today. Fassbender inhabits Jobs expertly and uses Sorkin’s characterization of Jobs as a man who is either so brilliant and determined that he’ll do anything to see that his vision is executed or that he’s a self-involved prick that doesn’t care that he treats people like garbage. Fassbender mixes those two ideas to create a Jobs that is unique in his likable unlikability. You can sympathize with him while genuinely detesting him as a person. No one else, other than DeNiro in Raging Bull, has an actor achieved such a duality in character. Winslet is uncharacteristically demure as Joanna. Though her Polish accent comes and goes at will, she handles the role as seemingly the only person who can actually talk to and get through to Jobs with grace, never seeming like she’s backing down even though her part isn’t particularly showy. Another standout is Rogan, delivering a nuanced performance that should, at this point, come as no surprise from a typically comedic actor (as comedic roles are infinitely harder than dramatic ones). He stands toe-to-toe with Fassbender and holds his own against the heavyweight actor.
With so much working in the film’s favor, it’s difficult to believe that it’s not a great movie. It is well written, expertly directed and superbly acted as well as being engaging and entertaining. Yet there is a distance between the audience and the main character that isn’t bridged until the very end, too late to make the connection retroactive. Despite that, Steve Jobs is still a good piece of entertainment that takes the road less traveled by emphasizing the human parts of an iconic figure and leaving out the bits that made him famous.