Steve Jobs (2015) / Drama
MPAA Rated: R for language
Running Time: 122 min.
Cast: Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Seth Rogen, Jeff Daniels, Michael Stuhlbarg, Katherine Waterston
Director: Danny Boyle
Screenplay: Aaron Sorkin (portions taken from the Walter Isaacson book)
Review published October 24, 2015
There are two things most people know about Steve Jobs: he was a genius, and he was an a-hole. Since his death in 2011, there have been a number of projects over the years, including the prior biopic Jobs and the Alex Gibney documentary Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine, that have wrestled with how we're ultimately supposed to feel about a man who is so good at what he does for a living, yet so uninterested in trying to be good at just about anything else. However, much of what we know about the very private Steve Jobs comes almost wholly from his public appearances that he could shape himself, so by giving us an interpretation of what the man may have been like behind the scenes, literally behind the scenes of those very public appearances, the filmmakers seek to give us a look at Jobs that has never been seen before, perhaps even by those who were there.
Steve Jobs is written by highly acclaimed screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (Charlie Wilson's War, The American President), who scored big with another tech industry biography with 2008's The Social Network. Although Walter Isaacson's best-selling biography on Jobs published in 2011 provides many of the facts used in the film, Sorkin takes all of those facts and conversations and weaves them into its own fictional circumstances, setting all of the backstage drama in the ramp-up to three key product launches in the career of Jobs: 1984's Apple Macintosh, 1988's NeXT "Cube", and 1998's iMac. Handlers, work associates near and not-so-dear, skeptical tech journalists, a demanding ex-girlfriend named Chrisann Brennan (Waterston, Inherent Vice), and even Lisa, the estranged daughter Jobs denies is even his, come in and out of the story as he preps for going out on stage and trying to wow the crowd in his hype for another one of his uniquely designed consumer products.
Sorkin's smart, juicy, and thematically rich writing style is a bit of a double-edged sword, as he's quite gifted at finding riveting dramatic wrinkles, even in stories as cut and dried as technology and computer design, but often ratchets up tension to play for bombast and vitriol in a way that feels too Hollywood to buy as a portrayal of real people in real situations. It's also a talky film, and given its three-act, three-setting structure, it very much comes across like a filmed version of a stage play chamber drama, which does deflate the cinematic aspect of the movie, despite having an Oscar-winning director at its helm.
Michael Fassbender (Slow West, X-Men: Days of Future Past), who took over from the initial early casting of Christian Bale, stars as Steve Jobs, and though he doesn't quite look enough like the real deal to find it a transformative performance, he is still quite captivating as a more handsome and charismatic version envisioned by the movie-making team. Perhaps too handsome and charismatic, as the prickly Jobs often comes across as too likeable, even when everyone around him is calling him a tyrant and a huge jerk. The real Steve Jobs was enigmatic, intensely logical and cold, and you could see it in his eyes, whereas Fassbender seems more soft and approachable, despite his immense arrogance, coming across more like a shrewd politician than a tech wizard with a singular and uncompromising vision at the expense of his ability to make emotional connections with people.
The supporting cast, who also are not dead ringers for their real-life equivalents, are quite solid, with Kate Winslet (Insurgent, Divergent) giving an effective, subtle performance as Jobs' right-hand woman in times of product launches, Joanna Hoffman, though she appears to struggle throughout to maintain Hoffman's Polish accent. Seth Rogen (The Interview) portraying the much more warm and friendly Apple co-founder engineer, Steve Wozniak, gets a thumbs up from the real Wozniak for the turn, though Rogen essentially acts like Rogen more than Wozniak, whose only attributes seem to be that he is a large guy, has a beard, and wasn't an egotist like Jobs. Also contributing well is Jeff Daniels (The Martian) as former Pepsi CEO John Sculley, who took over the reins of Apple for a spell prior to Jobs' dismissal after the failure of the Macintosh, and Michael Suthlbarg (Pawn Sacrifice) as Macintosh designer Andy Hertzfeld.
The main story arc for the film is not about the way Steve Jobs evolved as a businessman, but as a father, finding a way to open up his walled-off heart that can only be opened by a proprietary tool that only he possessed. Perhaps the saddest part of the film is that the Lisa character, while a person that exists in real life, is mostly a fabrication, used merely as a thematic device, much like Rooney Mara's fictitious character existed for Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network. Creative license isn't sampled, or even dolloped over the top of a true story, but it's actually the main ingredient, leaving the reality as a spice to be used sparingly for purposes of the narrative structure. It's more a think piece than a re-enactment, and, for a film about a man who challenged the public to, "Think Different" in Apple's advertisements, Sorkin and director Danny Boyle (127 Hours, Slumdog Millionaire) seem to take this motto to heart in delivering an entirely different sort of Steve Jobs' biopic than most will be expecting.
As with other films about Jobs, there is the narrative irony at seeing how a man who often struggled to form bonds and connections with the people around him could so firmly understand the human need to form bonds and connections with each other, utilizing his devices. But, when you look "under the hood" of his early work, you see a man who didn't want to connect the world so much as for the world to connect to him, through products that featured proprietary hardware, software, and even case design, as well as the ability to connect only to those willing to play in the same walled garden of Apple, usually at quite a high price compared to the more open world of the PC and other devices.
The three different major set pieces all have a different tempo and themes, and even different film stock, shooting in 16mm for 1984, 35mm for 1988, and with digital cameras in 1998. My favorite is the central one involving the launch of NeXT's product, perhaps because this is the portion of Steve Jobs' career that has been covered the least, making it feel fresh and undiscovered. The movie isn't a traditional biopic, as it only offers three snapshots of Jobs' life to choose from. Sorkin does fudge the narrative a bit by shoehorning in many other of Jobs' life events into the frame of those snapshots, and also through the use of montage interludes to keep viewers up to speed on what happened to Jobs career-wise between the vignettes.
Perhaps the term 'snapshot' is inaccurate; Sorkin says that Steve Jobs is not a picture but a painting. Given that the film gets some dramatic mileage from an abstract made by a five-year-old Lisa Brennan on MacPaint, it's perhaps fitting that Sorkin's 'painting' is also an abstract, showing Jobs life, not as it truly was, but as it makes us feel, allowing us to make our own interpretations of this jumble of elements to form our own unique perspectives. Perhaps it's most fitting that a film about a man who envisioned himself as an artist, and obsesses more about the form and the feel over the specifics of the content in his products, would have a movie made about him that does the same.
©2015 Vince Leo