Image source. Copyright Universal Pictures, 2015.
Remember The Social Network, that intense movie about the young antisocial tech genius who made a little website called Facebook? The screenwriter of that movie, Aaron Sorkin, has made another movie about a young antisocial tech genius. Anyone ever heard of this guy called Steve Jobs? This latest effort to portray the famously disagreeable Apple CEO is fast-paced, incisive, and energetic, almost like Jobs himself. But despite its many strengths, Sorkin’s follow-up act to his Zuckerberg masterpiece doesn’t quite hit home. Ironically, the very things that make Sorkin’s writing so compelling – speed and sharpness – are also what make the actual movie little more than a series of empty theatrics.
Steve Jobs is not a biopic in the traditional sense. Instead of trying to cover Jobs’ entire life in two hours, Sorkin chooses to depict the lead-up to three different product launches: the launch of the original Macintosh in 1984, the unveiling of the NeXT Computer in 1988, and the release of the iMac in 1998. Each time, mere minutes before Jobs’ latest creation is set to be revealed to the world, we find ourselves thrust into frantic backstage drama. Programs suddenly aren’t working as they’re supposed to. Disgruntled former colleagues want some favors. Angry ex-girlfriends demand more money. Bosses question everything. And through it all, Steve Jobs (Michael Fassbender) somehow finds a way to bend everyone to his domineering, painfully obnoxious will. Sorry, Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), you may have been the guy who really programmed everything, but I’m not going to acknowledge you in my speech…because I don’t think you deserve it. Mr. Sculley (Jeff Daniels), I know you wanted me fired, and I hate you for it. And for the last time, Chrisann (Katherine Waterston), Lisa (Perla Haney-Jardine/Ripley Sobo/Makenzie Moss) is *not* my daughter! The only person able to keep Jobs from being a total sociopath: Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), the Eastern European marketing executive who, when she yells at Jobs, perfectly verbalizes the viewer’s thoughts.
In Sorkin’s screenplay, years go by, Jobs gets fired and re-hired, Apple dies then flourishes. But what’s remarkable is that so much stays the same. Jobs remains a jerk. Chrisann continues to seek Jobs’ financial support. Steve Wozniak is always trying to get Jobs to acknowledge him. The same characters, the same passions, animate each of the three “vignettes” in this story. And that’s one of the problems with this movie. Sorkin’s dialogue is edgy and well-written, but it always somehow…repeats itself. Every other scene is a heated argument between Jobs and some other character. The same few characters rehash the same discussions and conflicts over and over again, with little or no sign that they will ever grow up. Lucky for Sorkin, his script is so rapid-fire that we find ourselves caught up in the riveting back-and-forth of every struggle, without even realizing that we’re watching the same essential fight play itself out for the umpteenth time. Only when you walk out will you realize that Sorkin never gives the movie a chance to just breathe.
But the bigger problem with Steve Jobs is that it just doesn’t give us much of an idea of Jobs the person. Sure, we get to see Jobs be the jerk that he allegedly was, but what’s driving this guy? Why is he so persistently cruel to other people? How in the world can he be so callous and live with himself? Sorkin tries to address these questions, especially in the scenes where Jobs tries to reconcile with his estranged daughter. Yet Sorkin’s penchant for quick, tense dialogue and arguments means that we’re never allowed to slow down and soak in Jobs’ private, human side. Sorkin settles for a lame feel-good ending, complete with cheering people and uplifting music, that haphazardly lionizes Jobs and tosses all his intricate contradictions to the side. Even in The Social Network, we got to see Zuckerberg act remorseful after throwing his friend under the bus. Here, any such emotional depth gives way to comparatively meaningless drama and flair.
That doesn’t mean Steve Jobs isn’t worth watching. If you enjoyed The Social Network’s spirited pacing and exchanges, Steve Jobs won’t disappoint. You’ll be hooked from moment one. And Fassbender, Winslet, Rogen, and Daniels all give excellent performances in their various roles. Fassbender may not be an exact physical replica of the actual Jobs, but his performance is so engrossing that you’re sure that the guy on the screen has to be the real deal. If only Sorkin had slowed down and focused more on Jobs himself, we’d have a movie that would make The Social Network a mere warm-up act. This isn’t the movie to tackle Jobs and the complex personality he was. Not quite.
Steve Jobs (2015)
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Seth Rogen, Jeff Daniels, Michael Stuhlbarg, Katherine Waterston
Running Time: 121 minutes
Produced by: Danny Boyle, Guymon Casady, Christian Colson, Mark Gordon, Scott Rudin
Directed by: Danny Boyle
Written by: Aaron Sorkin
Based on Walter Isaacson’s 2011 biography Steve Jobs.