Cast: Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Seth Rogen, Jeff Daniels, Michael Stuhlbarg, Katherine Waterston
Director: Danny Boyle
Running Time: 2 hours 2 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
The most successful biopics are the ones which dissect a compelling central figure, feature an atypical structure, and go against the tendency to fawn over their subjects. Two great examples of this are Todd Hayne's I'm Not There and Mike Leigh's Mr. Turner. The former was a fractured take on Bob Dylan with various actors personifying the enigmatic performer told in a non-linear style, while the latter was a sprawling and unsentimental take on British painter J.M.W. Turner. Both films were technically biopics, but in reality, they were attempting to get at something more primal about the essence of their subjects. Neither did particularly well with audiences, though critics were largely impressed, which leads one to believe that playing it safe within the confines of the genre is probably the most financially responsible for a major studio.
In the case of Steve Jobs, director Danny Boyle and writer Aaron Sorkin's stab at the mythologized icon of the tech world, one must give credit to a major studio (in this case, Universal Pictures) for green-lighting something with such an unusual structure. In that sense, the film nails one of the three above criteria for successful biopics, and in some ways, almost gets there in terms of refusing to worship the central figure. But the real problem with the film is Sorkin's screenplay and Boyle's handling of that screenplay. It has all of the Sorkin staples; theatrical monologues, rapid-fire dialogue delivered during walk and talk sessions, and a penchant for cynicism suddenly breaking into overwrought sentimentality. In the case of The Social Network, which Sorkin also wrote, the rat-a-tat zingers were cannily visualized by director David Fincher as a sort of analog for the encroaching digital age. Here, Boyle (a visual stylist and unabashed optimist) can't quite come to terms with the stream of near-endless chatter and the prickly nature of Jobs as a lionized personality. In terms of filmmaking, Boyle tries to downplay his usual habit of amping things up through heightened sound and MTV-style editing, but there are times where he just can't help himself. What this means is that though the actors are tremendously committed to the fidelity of Sorkin's words, Boyle feels like he's restlessly fighting both his best and worst instincts.
Still, the majority of the blame for the failure of Steve Jobs as a cohesive vision falls squarely on the shoulders of Sorkin, whose signature voice pushes, claws, and bursts at the seams in every single scene. Centering around three separate product launches--The Mac in 1984, the NeXT cube in 1988, and the unveiling of the imac in 1998--the film certainly has the atypical structure down, which gives everything a repetitive, though extremely watchable, pulse. Meanwhile, a revolving cast of personalities--Jobs's personal assistant Johanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), Apple CEO John Scully (Jeff Daniels), developers Andy Hertzfeldt (Michael Stuhlbarg) and Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen) storm in and out of seemingly unlocked doors as a kind of Greek chorus, announcing their personal grievances and/or mission statements just before the launches. There's also an estranged ex-girlfriend Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston), who conveniently shows up from time to time to berate Jobs about neglecting his daughter (whom he claims isn't his) and asking for welfare payments. This through line--of an egomaniacal entertainer with a future vision for technology who also happened to be a shitty father--is a well-trodden narrative gimmick which Sorkin renders as a rather heavy-handed daddy issues motif.
In terms of Jobs himself, played here with a steely-eyed dexterity by Michael Fassbender, there's a sense of being trapped within the prism of the megalomaniacal prick in a black turtle neck who, when all is said and done, just wanted a little redemption. The issue isn't with the "unreality" of the biopic construct--factually accurate depictions of events is fundamentally boring anyhow--but rather, with the way the character arc is presented. Basically, Sorkin's thesis seems to be as follows: Jobs was an egotistical, difficult, single-minded asshole who produced and distributed a bunch of snazzy tech toys we all own and love and who would later redeem his failings as a father just in time for the triumphant launch of the imac. While this reading may sound reductive, Sorkin himself gives into reductiveness by making the complicated uncomplicated and the unknowable knowable. By having every character show up on cue during the three separate launches--Wozniack wants credit for the Mac II! Hertzfeldt seeks retribution for having been previously threatened! Joanna chides Jobs for being a ghostly Dad!--Sorkin creates a narrative trajectory which makes Jobs' coming to terms with his past sins an inevitability.
This mythologizing of Jobs; complete with a cringe-worthy last half involving his now 19-year-old estranged daughter Lisa (played by Perla Haney-Jardine), seems to contradict the film's initial feeling that Sorkin wouldn't be pulling any punches. Is it possible to both adore and resent someone? Sure, but Boyle and Sorkin tip their hands too far in the direction of adoration here for that take away to be acceptable. Incidently, it's in the film's gee-whiz, self-congratulatory final scenes where Boyle's hand is most keenly felt; with swelling music, gratuitous slow mo, and Jobs bathed in dazzling high-contrast lighting. Also no stranger to treacly uplift, Sorkin doesn't do his director any favors up serving up a series of painfully awkward conversations about stunted responsibility and fatherly misgivings. Instead of presenting the three sections as interdependent events in which the backstage minutiae of preparing and then launching a tech product becomes the focal point, Sorkin simply uses the structure as a means to replay slight variations on the same idea.
Without the absentee father hook, Steve Jobs could have been a fascinating behind-the-scenes farce about the delusions of power, but the film takes the maudlin route, with each gradual revelation (gasp, Jobs was adopted!) being used merely to make way for his eventual redemption. This idea; that Jobs was a flawed genius who didn't have the time or energy to invest in the life of his daughter, is pretty common knowledge since his death in 2011, but what the film never gets into his how or why so many people followed him. Fassbender's chameleon-like performance gets the creepy vocal inflections and commanding presence right, but he's never given a chance to showcase the kind of magnetism that would cause others to bow at his messianic feet. This makes the film's eventual slide into outright sentiment and hero worship that much more galling. Yes, he was a terrible human being, Sorkin seems to be saying, but he nonetheless deserves our adoration and respect, because, you know, people sure do love their ipods.