I proudly admit that most of the technology I own was made by Apple. I can’t thank Steve Jobs and Apple enough for them: they’re elegant yet simple enough for my technologically challenged brain to comprehend. But these words “elegant” and “simple” do not apply to Steve Jobs himself, or, at least, that’s how we have come to remember him in the four years since his death. No doubt, Jobs defined a generation of tech for laymen and has proved a cultural icon — but is he a complex, sometimes self-hating conundrum, too intricate and secretive to deconstruct? Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (“The Social Network”) and director Danny Boyle (“Trance”) seem to think so, as they attempt to separate the myth from the man in “Steve Jobs.”
Admittedly, this is not your typical biopic, and Sorkin deserves all of the credit in the world for breaking with such a contrived structure. Rather than simply watching a retelling of his life, we follow Jobs (Michael Fassbender, “X-Men: Days of Future Past”) and his coworkers and friends (or are they enemies?) at three different product launches in 1984, 1988 and 1998. Sorkin relies on dialogue and several flashbacks to fill in the details we missed between each showcase. This plays to his strength, as he fills the scenes with rich dialogue with a classic Sorkinian bite.
But what we gain in distinctive story structure, we lose in direct narrative continuity. One can view “Steve Jobs” almost as three separate, 40-minute short films. We don’t really need anything that comes before or after each segment because they are completely self-contained, and any otherwise missing information is filled in through a flashback. And before each segment begins, we get a montage of news stories that catch us up on the inter-launch years and set the stage for what’s to come. Technically speaking, it all works, but the separated segments keep us at a distance. We cannot see Jobs himself grow and his relationships evolve; instead, we are forced to simply accept that something has changed, “Oh he’s nice to his daughter now. That’s cool.”
This distance may be Sorkin and Boyle’s attempt to reflect Jobs’s mind within the narrative structure itself. The story makes very clear that Jobs is locked into each event, his mind zoned in on one objective: success. And anything that hampers that success must be expunged. Boyle and Sorkin provide us with glimpses into his mind — images and videos often appear on walls, and brief cuts back to previous segments are roughly inserted to reflect his emotional conflict — as further endorsement of this idea. But, then again, Sorkin’s ego may have just kicked in and he decided to be different for the sake of difference (you know, because he’s Aaron Sorkin).
(As the camera follows Jobs around the various theaters, I couldn’t help but recall the long tracking shots of “Birdman;” both films share a theme of closed, contained spaces as reflections of the psyche.)
But the Sorkin-Boyle dynamic ultimately proves somewhat disappointing — they’re just too mismatched. “The Social Network” works so well because Sorkin’s cold, disconnected character could be reflected in David Fincher’s cold, calculated direction. Boyle, by contrast, uses the camera in a more embracive fashion, and he is always sympathetic to his characters, even when his characters are complete scum (see “Trainspotting”).
Boyle is forced to look at Jobs in two lights: one as the misanthropic boss and one as the father and friend learning to be a decent human being. And the contrast between the two from a filmmaking standpoint is quite stark.
Let me explain. There’s a scene early on where Jobs confronts Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlberg, “Pawn Sacrifice”), an original Macintosh developer, in front of several other Apple employees for failing to properly set up the demo computer. The camera circles around the two characters, and we see the fear on the other employees’ faces and sense the dread instilled by Jobs. We understand that this environment is, quite simply, toxic all the way around. The film shines in moments like these. But in scenes where Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet, “Insurgent”), another member of the original Macintosh team, tries to lecture Jobs about being a more sympathetic individual, the camera does a standard close-up shot counter-shot; it’s just not nearly as much fun nor as telling and impactful as the scene could be.
But where the structure fails, the performances elevate. Fassbender will undoubtedly receive an Oscar nomination for his work here. He immerses himself in the character and balances the forcefulness of the character with subtlety, but no less drive, in his quieter, more earnest scenes. And Jeff Daniels (HBO’s “The Newsroom”) as former Apple CEO John Sculley demonstrates incredible charisma, representing a formidable opponent to Fassbender. The climactic, tense confrontation between the two after Jobs’ dismissal from Apple proves electrifying, the film’s finest moment.
Seth Rogen (“The Interview”) as Steve Wozniak displays considerable range and heart. We get the sense that the Jobs-Wozniak relationship seems the most at risk to Jobs’s toxicity. It’s clear the two have some kind of respect for each other, or maybe an almost fraternal obligation to each other, and at times they seem to truly care. But the two are so diametrically opposed in their desires — Jobs demands control over Wozniak and his ingenuity, where Wozniak yearns for some kind of recognition for his success and role in transforming computing, if not from the public then at least from Jobs — that their dynamic will eventually crumble beneath them. It’s a deeply interesting relationship, one that deserves a bit more exploration than the film devotes to it.
So is “Steve Jobs” a success? Yes and no. The film is rooted in dialogue rather than images, so those who prefer to see rather than hear will be disappointed. However, the dialogue is, on the whole, absorbing and thoroughly entertaining. And the film is worth seeing for Fassbender alone. But in attempting to deconstruct the myth that is “Steve Jobs,” the filmmakers almost mythologize him further. Not until the very, very end does Jobs become something beyond a narcissistic, sardonic tyrant. His many verbal assaults are so effective, so biting and, for better or worse, so funny that we sometimes lose the perspective that Jobs is for the most part not a good person. That Jobs died four years ago only further muddies this portrayal, as we can look on him more fondly now that he’s gone.
When dealing with biopics, even ones as different as this, one must always separate reality from the art: “Steve Jobs” is not a true reflection of Steve Jobs, but a study of the myth of Steve Jobs. It’s an important distinction to remember as you watch the film. “Steve Jobs” isn’t a biography, but it ventures into deeper waters than any standard biopic could. “Think different” was Apple’s slogan back in 1997, and, at the very least, “Steve Jobs” does.