A spiritual sequel to ‘The Social Network’, ‘Steve Jobs’ sees screenwriter Aaron Sorkin deliver another tale of a troubled genius who helped create a world of computer communications yet couldn’t figure out his own interpersonal communications. Sorkin being Sorkin, it’s also another talk-fest in which egomaniacs toss out well-crafted barbs. This time, however, a partnership with flamboyant director Danny Boyle adds colorful flourishes of style and even bursts of warm emotions. It’s an odd pairing for better or worse (mostly better).
As you may have gathered from the title, this is the story of Apple founder Steve Jobs (played here by Michael Fassbender). Using Walter Isaacson’s phonebook-sized bio as source material, Sorkin condenses the life and times of the man down to three rambling conversations before three significant product launches.
The first is for the groundbreaking Macintosh computer launched in 1984 with a famous Super Bowl commercial that Jobs hoped would change the world. While panicking over whether or not the computer will say “Hello” in the presentation as planned, Jobs threatens one of his lead programmers (Michael Stuhlbarg), alienates Apple founding partner Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen) by ignoring the success of his previous machine, chats up his boss (Jeff Daniels), and refuses to acknowledge that he’s the father of his daughter while humiliating his wife (Katherine Waterston). All the while, his assistant (Kate Winslet) struggles in vain to be his conscience.
This sequence runs about forty minutes and is essentially repeated twice more at the 1988 launch of his failed educational computer NeXT developed after his Apple firing, and then at the 1998 launch of the iMac, the first massive success by the company that was followed by almost two decades of digital dominance. The same characters return for different conversations reflecting where Jobs was in his life at the time and how he’d managed to alienate or inspire those same people around him.
It’s a very writerly and visibly constructed script from Sorkin that features some spectacular dialogue and irritating indulgence. Essentially, the whole thing plays out like ‘A Christmas Carol’, but with real life characters representing aspects of the troubled genius’ strengths and flaws, building to a spike of redemption that fires up at the finish line. There are certainly times when the script feels pat and overblown, but not nearly enough for those distractions to grow into major problems.
Though the film was initially intended to be another collaboration with director David Fincher, the script fell into the hands of Danny Boyle and is likely better for it. Fincher was a perfect sparring partner for the harsh cynicism that defined ‘The Social Network’, but he’s not a filmmaker who does well with positive emotions (see: Button, Benjamin). It’s perhaps best that Boyle took the reins.
Typically kinetic and flamboyant in his visual style, Boyle (‘Trainspotting’, ‘Slumdog Millionaire’, etc.) has to tone things down to an extent given that ‘Steve Jobs’ is essentially comprised of three dialogue scenes. Nevertheless, he finds ways to make the film move and explode with bursts of color that clash and mesh well with Sorkin’s subdued chatty style. He shoots each section in a different medium (grainy 16mm for the scrappy 1984 Apple empire, 35mm for the 1988 troubles, and crystal clear HD for the 1998 triumph) and uses flash edits, montages and double exposures to heighten specific peaks of the narrative without ever getting in the way. He also leans hard on the redemptive finale in a way that skirts ever so close to being maudlin, butt ultimately satisfies if only because the harsh tale so desperately needs that blast of warmth.
As per usual in a Sorkin project, the actors are all given stacks of dialogue to show off. Winslet fairs best amongst the supporting players, transforming what could have been a Jiminy Cricket irritant into a neurotic with a heart of gold. Daniels slithers and smiles his way around a role that bounces from hero to victim, while Rogen, Stuhlbarg and Waterston do what they can to turn reflections of Jobs’ failures into living, breathing humans (and do so admirably).
Of course, the movie is really the Michael Fassbender show given that the actor is in pretty much every frame and he delivers the goods yet again. The 1984 sequence sees Fassbender play a walking ego who could have been in any Sorkin story, but and he then gradually transforms that starting point into the gentle genius everyone remembers from those endless Apple conferences. Admittedly the makeup, hair, and glasses help sell the illusion, but Fassbender also does an excellent job of slowly adopting all the recognizable Jobs ticks so that we don’t notice. As for his Ebenezer Scrooge transformation, obviously the guy knocks it out of the park.
It’s impossible not to think of ‘The Social Network’ while watching ‘Steve Jobs’ considering how similar both films are thematically. It’s also difficult to deny that the follow-up isn’t quite at the same level as the original. The writing is a bit too on-the-nose this time, a fact that Sorkin at least acknowledges with a few stabs at meta humor but never transcends. The redemption that Boyle leans into so heavily doesn’t quite hit home as effectively as similar climaxes in his previous movies, though it is a nice endpoint to a film filled with sourness.
Despite the stumbles along the way, ‘Steve Jobs’ is an intriguing movie. The filmmakers shoot for a contemporary ‘Citizen Kane’. Even if they don’t quite get there, they’ve transformed the life and flaws of Steve Jobs into stirring drama. True, the Microsoft battles, cancer and iPhone revolution aren’t covered, but that’s all known and the filmmakers are right to assume that viewers don’t need to tread through it again. (Plus, that horrible Ashton Kutcher movie is there if you need it.) Instead, Sorkin, Boyle and company seek out the essence of the icon and try to turn that into a universal human parable. Somehow, they do it and make endless chatter into riveting cinema. That ain’t easy. Well played.