When it comes to movies that have been endlessly cataloged ever since they were originally announced, Steve Jobs is the newest champ. When you attach Oscar-winning screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network) to a movie about the beloved Apple co-founder only a few years after his death, the combination proves too tempting for consumers to resist. On top of that, the press gave us front-row seats to the movie's wheelings and dealings, most notably with Leonardo DiCaprio and Christian Bale both courted to play Jobs before Michael Fassbender nailed the gig. This film has evolved as rapidly as an Apple product line, and to finally see the finished product in theaters is a bit surreal.
Even more surreal, then, is that Steve Jobs frustratingly winds up with far less punch and satisfaction than we had hoped for all this time. Adapted from Walter Isaacson’s authoritative Jobs biography, Sorkin pens an incredibly detailed, nuanced screenplay that is simultaneously conventional and unorthodox: like a stage play, the film is divided into three “acts,” which depict the 30 to 45 minutes before one of Jobs’ anticipated product launches. Since the keynotes from said launches have made Jobs a touchstone in tech and pop culture, they are intriguing focal points for Sorkin and director Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire). But Sorkin, of course, is known for delivering generous helpings of snappy dialogue, and he delivers more of the same here, which weighs the viewer down - even with a ubiquitous, popular subject.
Beginning in Act One – the 1984 launch of the Macintosh – we meet Jobs in all of his enterprising, stubborn glory as he desperately commands software developer Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg) to make the new computer say “hello” to the audience. It’s this seemingly insignificant, but absolutely critical detail that showcases the man's ruthless perfectionism, which guides his behavior and underscores the film. The hang-up sends Jobs into a furious tirade, from which only his personal assistant and Apple marketing exec Joanna Hoffman (a great Kate Winslet) can calm him down.
To throw even more gasoline on the fire, Jobs' ex-girlfriend Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Wilson) and her five year-old Lisa (Makenzie Moss), plagued by welfare, show up demanding financial assistance from the $400 million dollar father. Jobs, who continually denies paternity, doesn’t take kindly to their visit, even telling Lisa that the naming of his previous computer model, the Apple Lisa, was merely coincidental. Ouch.
For Jobs, no person is too sacred to insult, and no task is too difficult to conquer. He is the heart and soul of this film, and Fassbender's spot-on portrayal of him - even if the two hardly look alike - is enthralling. It is the outlet from which Sorkin's writing draws all of its fast-paced energy. With Boyle's colorful, witty direction - which mirrors his previous work in Slumdog Millionaire - the film becomes a colorful, sharply cut fountain of artistry with a cold SOB at its center. With all of its visual flair, one wonders if Jobs himself would have appreciated the film, which Sorkin has continually referred to as a painting, and not as a biopic.
Act Two sees Jobs before the launch of his first computer model at his new company NeXT, which came about as a result of his firing from Apple by CEO John Sculley (Jeff Daniels, playing the corporate bigwig yet again). He finds support and encouragement from his old friend and Apple co-founder Steve "Woz" Wozniak (Seth Rogen). Woz, who continually pleads Jobs to publicly acknowledge his team for crafting the Apple II computer (which kept their company afloat for several years), is instead met with firm insistence; to acknowledge the past, Jobs says, is to not look towards the future. Jobs even compares himself to an orchestra conductor (with accompanying orchestral score to match), who plays the musicians and not the individual instruments. There's simply no winning against Jobs, who rubs it in quite a bit with personal attacks, leading Woz to declare: "you can be decent and gifted at the same time."
And yet in the same way that Woz feels bogged down by Jobs' iron-headed resolve, Sorkin's writing style, which defines the film, begins to bog down viewers with excessive dialogue that tells rather than shows. This peaks in an argument between Jobs and Sculley over Jobs' firing from Apple. The sequence, which schizophrenically intercuts past and present, drains the viewer and leaves no time to catch a breath.
By the start of Act Three - the 1998 launch of the iMac, where Jobs at last dons his iconic black turtleneck - the audience is already completely fatigued. The result is diminished concern for various subplots: Lisa, now nineteen (played here by Perla Haney-Jardine) reconnects with her father, and Hoffman, who is still by Jobs' side as a business partner, expresses romantic interest. But we've already spent so much time delving into Jobs himself that his relationships (save for Woz, which gets emotional) elicit little sympathy.
Steve Jobs is a classic example of the individual parts being infinitely better than the whole. Fassbender's performance, Sorkin's writing, and Boyle's direction are all objectively great, even if Sorkin's style isn't palatable for every moviegoer. When combined, however, the result is an aesthetically pleasing, but emotionally thin story. One wonders if there was anything new to gleam from the movie when Jobs' death in 2011 is still fresh in the public consciousness, and his life has been compulsively cataloged and debated in every medium. Nevermind the fact that we already saw Jobs on film in 2013 (played by Ashton Kutcher), and that the documentary Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine premiered just last month. Do we have Steve Jobs burnout?
Even with all of its unique assets, the film is paradoxically similar to other adaptations - especially when Jobs' cultural notoriety remains prominent. The result is a film that, while it sports new takes on the Jobs tale, feels like something we've already seen before.
Written by Walter Isaacson (biography) and Aaron Sorkin (screenplay). Directed by Danny Boyle.
Starring Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Seth Rogen, and Jeff Daniels.