Despite being one of the year’s most eagerly anticipated awards contenders, Danny’s Boyle’s Steve Jobs has long faced controversy in both the representation of its subjects and its troubled production history, which saw changes in directors, cast members, and studios over the past year. Despite Universal Studios managing to finally settle on an impressive cadre of talent both in front of and behind the camera, there’s an unavoidable lack of necessity to the film in lieu of how recently the film’s central subject passed away. While the necessity of a film isn’t something I tend to get hung up on, this inability to create historical context or look at Steve Jobs with any sort of objectivity in regards to both his personal life and legacy, casts a shadow over the entire proceeding.
Steve Jobs takes a look at the businessman and innovator in the behind the scenes minutes leading up to his three keynote speeches in 1984, 1988, and 1998 where he unveiled the Macintosh, NeXT box, and the iMac respectively. Instead of focusing on the technology Jobs helped develop, the film takes a look at his personal relationships with his ex-wife, daughter, and co-workers as these individuals reappear in his life over the years to impart bits of wisdom and give us glimpses of Jobs’ character, or at least the filmmakers’ idea of Jobs’ character. These figures from Jobs’ past and present, and the allusions to his future creations, make Steve Jobs feel somewhat like Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. But a novel has space to linger and corners to peer into, and Steve Jobs is far too disjointed, intentionally so, to feel like a sprawling moral epic. Ultimately this structure and revolving door of character interactions feel closer to a stage play than a film. Throw in a Greek chorus and we’d have Steve Jobs by way of antiquity.
While Boyle’s expert eye for lighting can be seen throughout the film, Steve Jobs is far more the product of its screenwriter and is effectively an Aaron Sorkin film. Sorkin writes for actors, and without a strong personality-type like David Fincher, the direction simply becomes a bottle to contain all of Sorkin’s wordy dialogue. This dialogue sounds great when delivered by actors of the caliber of Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Seth Rogen, Jeff Daniels, and Katherine Waterson, but none of it sounds like words that real, living, breathing human beings would speak. Sorkin told The Guardian that most of the dialogue is fictional and its apparent. Sorkin’s dialogue is often the subject of parody, and in Steve Jobs he does nothing to sway the perception. Conversations, like one between Jeff Daniels’ Apple CEO John Sculley, and Fassbender’s Jobs about adoption and control are spread out over the course of the fifteen years in the film. These moments are written for impact, not because they resemble reality. There’s a Shakespearean quality to some of these scenes, an exhausting amount of back and forth dialogue and double meanings before they almost always climax with two people in a room, yelling at each other. It’s all made wonderfully appealing by the performances, but the dialogue completely lacks subtlety, and practically begs us to see the unmissable metaphor that Jobs is more machine than man.
Sorkin’s work on 2010’s The Social Network manages to give Mark Zuckerberg a sense of humanity that audiences can latch on to. In Steve Jobs, Sorkin isn’t interested in Jobs the man so much as Steve Jobs the vengeful god. Jobs is mythologized into this remorseless being who’s always a step ahead of everyone else, with even his failings part of some larger plan for him. The Spielbergian scenes between Jobs and his daughter, meant to humanize him, never do their part and feel trite when surrounded by scenes that are disinterested in the saccharine, scenes that ask the audiences to laugh and enjoy Jobs’ ego, and ability to trample feelings without a pause. The film’s ending scenes, which try to show us Jobs in a more positive light as someone loving but “poorly made” is stretched out to the point of awkwardness. There hasn’t been a prestige picture so unaware of how to end things since Spielberg overstayed his welcome in the final moments of Lincoln.
The fact that Jobs is depicted as an asshole through and through isn’t as much as an issue is the film’s inability to convey what Jobs did to make him worthy of a film. Of course we have journalism profiles, and countless books and documentaries about the real-life man, but the film barely scratches at Jobs’ impact on Apple, his innovations, or expertise. It instead gives the sense that he simply used other people’s work and got ahead by being smartly cruel. While some of this may be factual, there’s a lot more to the man than what the film wants us to believe. Instead of asking why Steve Jobs was and is so important, the filmmakers simply place him on a pedestal and ask us to praise him simply because he’s there.
What fully deserves praise is Fassbender’s performance as Jobs. Regardless of whether he captures the essence of the real-life figure, he delivers a thoroughly engaging performance that commands the screen. Of course this isn’t anything we don’t expect from Fassbender, but considering how little interest the film takes in Jobs’ humanity, Fassbender deserves even further commendation. It’s not his mannerisms, his posture, or vocalizations that make his performance as Jobs one of the year’s best, but his eyes and their ability to go dull and lifeless and then become electrified all within in moments. The screenplay may not give us Steve Jobs the visionary, but Fassbender carries that torch in his eyes, and provides one of the sole aspects of the film that makes Steve Jobs seem like an almost necessary endeavor. The rest of the performances are also unsurprisingly solid, though all get eaten up by the monologues and witty dialogue devoted to Jobs, with the exception of Jeff Daniels, who is well within his right to a Best Supporting Actor Nomination. Steve Jobs may fail to celebrate, or even meaningfully criticize, the man behind the movie, but it is undoubtedly a celebration of acting, and that alone is worth the price of admission.
As a biopic, Steve Jobs is neither distant nor close enough to its subject to work, and instead stays in the realm of inaccessibility. I have doubts that either Boyle or Sorkin understood Jobs well enough to make this movie into what many thought it should be or needed to be, and so they do what all human beings do when they encounter something beyond their reach: they create a myth. I find this aspect of the film captivating. It’s an experiment in structure, tone, and characterization that never completely works and yet the sheer ambition of the acting and writing is impressive. Realistically, I think in 20 years’ time, we may finally be ready to see Steve Jobs impact on our future and look back on his humanity through that, but for now we’re left with an entertaining, emotionally stunned legend. But just because the film doesn’t work in its entirety, doesn’t mean it doesn’t have its own value. I’d much rather watch a fascinating error that (purposefully or not) gives us something different and feeds into our own worship of fame and genius, than watch another generic biopic that simply checks off boxes on someone’s life.