Directed by: Danny Boyle.
Written by: Aaron Sorkin based on the book by Walter Isaacson.
Starring: Michael Fassbender (Steve Jobs), Kate Winslet (Joanna Hoffman), Seth Rogen (Steve Wozniak), Jeff Daniels (John Sculley), Michael Stuhlbarg (Andy Hertzfeld), Katherine Waterston (Chrisann Brennan), Perla Haney-Jardine (Lisa Brennan - 19), Ripley Sobo (Lisa Brennan - 9), Makenzie Moss (Lisa Brennan - 5), Sarah Snook (Andrea Cunningham), John Ortiz (Joel Pforzheimer).
There is perhaps no staler genre than the biopic of the visionary genius – movies that take complex figures and reduce them down to an easily digestible 2 hour movie, complete with plenty of “Eureka!” moments, when the movie knowingly winks at the audience when the brilliant man (and it’s almost always a man – Hollywood hasn’t done so well by visionary women) come up with their life changing, earth shattering revelation. Jake Kasdan’s Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story brilliantly satirized the musical genius biopic, but even if the genius at the core of the movie wasn’t a musician, for the most part, they follow the same pattern – we usually get a key moment or two from the main figure’s childhood, which will inevitably shape their entire lives, and then a collection of “greatest hits” – where the movie makes us in the audience privy to moments of great visionary genius. Lather, rinse, collect your Oscar, repeat as it usually goes with these biopics.
In the last 5 years, Aaron Sorkin has written three biopics which largely askew these conventions. His Oscar winning screenplay for The Social Network focuses on one chapter of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s life, which the film acknowledges is a work in progress, since Zuckerberg is still in his early 20s when the film ends. Moneyball (co-written with Steven Zallian) is a little more traditional look at Oakland A’s GM Billy Beane, but that may well be the work of Zallian, with Sorkin brought in to punch up the dialogue. With his latest, Steve Jobs, Sorkin completely abandons the traditional biopic structure – inside deciding to write about Jobs’ life in a bold, three act structure, each set in the minutes leading up to a product launch – for the Mac in 1984, for Next in 1988 and for the iMac in 1998. In the lead up to all of these launches, where Jobs stalks around backstage yelling at everyone, seems to be every key figure in Jobs life, who need to have it out with him right then and there. It’s a boldly artificial structure – and doesn’t try to hide that (late in the film Jobs makes a joke about how before each one of these launches, everyone acts like a drunk in the bar who has to tell him what they really think of him). It betrays Sorkin’s roots as a playwright – but it also allows Sorkin to do what he does best – write really long dialogue sequences, often while two people are walking and talking, delivered in a brisk pace, in a rhythm that is immediately identifiable as Sorkin’s, and no one else’s.
With Sorkin, as with other writers immediately identifiable by their dialogue (Tarantino and Mamet come to mind), casting is pivotal, because if one person screws up the dialogue, the whole thing comes crashing down. Luckily, no one screws it up in Steve Jobs – starting with Michael Fassbender, who is brilliant as Steve Jobs. Like Jessie Eisenberg’s portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg, the movie not only makes no effort to try and get you to like Jobs, it almost seems to go out of its way to make him look like a complete and total asshole. Jobs has no problem dressing down his underlings – and he sees everyone as his underling, and doesn’t care about anyone’s feelings – not even his 5 year daughter, who for years he denied was even his, and who breaks her little heart at the first launch telling her that the computer named Lisa isn’t named after her, but is just a coincidence. He’ll soften – a little in each of the three launches – in his relationship with his daughter, perhaps redeeming himself (a little) by the end. The message of the movie is vocalized by Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen) at one point “It’s not binary – you can be decent and a genius at the same time” – and it’s something that this version of Jobs learns, somewhat by the end.
For the most part though, Fassbender relishes playing Jobs as an asshole, and does it wonderfully. Kate Winslet is also great as Jobs’ His Girl Friday, Joanna Hoffman, who is supposedly in charge of Marketing for the company, but whose real job appears to follow Jobs around and be his voice of morality – a role that Sorkin most often assigns to women. That may sound like a trite dismissal of Winslet’s character – but she really does make it her own, even with a Polish accent that strangely seems to get a little stronger as the movie progresses. Seth Rogen, trying his hand at drama, makes for a fine Steve Wozniak – even if the movie doesn’t give him quite as much to do as you would expect, Rogen still slips into the role well. The best supporting performance – aside from Winslet – is probably by Michael Stuhlbarg playing Andy Hertzfeld, the underling that Jobs is probably hardest on, but who gradually emerges as the most sympathetic character in the film, aside from Lisa, who has to deal with this asshole of a father, and a flake (Katherine Waterston – not given anywhere near the complexity of her role in Inherent Vice last year) of a mother, who still turns out pretty good.
The film was directed by Danny Boyle, who although I would never say is as great a director as David Fincher, who was originally attached to the movie, was probably the right choice. This is a movie that moves a mile a minute, both in terms of the dialogue, and the camera movement, which is constantly on the movie following Jobs wherever he goes. This is the type of high energy thing that Boyle excels at – and even if this film is undeniably more Sorkin than Boyle, the two styles merge nicely.
Steve Jobs is a big, fun, fast moving entertaining film that nevertheless doesn’t quite match Sorkin’s best work. It isn’t as deep or fascinating as The Social Network, and I’m not sure it has the endless re-watch value of The American President, A Few Good Men (two movies I’ve easily seen 15 times each, in bits and pieces when they’re on TV, which is always) or single episodes of The West Wing or Sports Night (and no, I didn’t forget to include Studio 60 or The Newsroom). Steve Jobs is a really good movie that never quite clicks into being a truly great one. Perhaps it’s because it’s all just a little too simplistic – asshole learns not to be an asshole – to truly get at the depths of something like The Social Network. Nevertheless, the film is hugely entertaining, smart and stylish, and boasts some excellent performances. If it doesn’t quite reach the heights of Sorkin’s best work, perhaps that’s just because that is a high bar to clear – and we can all be thankful it’s far superior to Sorkin at his worst, and most preachy.