I was texting a friend about Steve Jobs over the weekend, the new biopic written by Aaron Sorkin and directed by Danny Boyle. Sorkin thankfully avoided the birth-to-death biopic that we’ve all seen and grown tired of by now. Instead Jobs’ life story is constructed around three high-profile product launches done in real-time: the Macintosh in 1984, NeXT in 1988, and the iMac in 1998. (Slightly different than originally reported three years ago.)
“The A to Z biopic is dead, I think,” he texted back.
Let’s hope so. The screenplay for Steve Jobs shows us that there are better ways to approach a life story than adhering to chronology.
It also shows us that Steve Jobs was a total a**hole.
Director: Danny Boyle
Release Date: October 9, 2015 (limited); October 23, 2015 (wide)
Even though he was an ideal public persona for Apple products, Steve Jobs was not a good person behind the scenes. There are numerous examples of Steve Jobs being a giant jerk, and the Steve Jobs of the film played by Michael Fassbender is superbly unrepentant. Before the launch of the original Macintosh computer, Steve throws tantrums. He’s abusive to his staff, and he continues to avoid his financial and personal responsibilities to his daughter Lisa and her mother. (He’s only 94.1% likely to be Lisa’s father, he keeps pointing out.) Steve Jobs was a self-centered prick, a long-view Machiavellian entrenched in the tech industry, and there are times in this film that he verges on pure supervillainy. But he was also a savvy businessman.
Based on this performance, you know who would make a great Lex Luthor? Michael Fassbender. (Also, Steve Jobs.)
With some historical figures, we ponder the link between madness and genius. With Steve Jobs it’s maybe more a question of morality and genius. The big conversation that the film wants to provoke is whether Steve Jobs could have been successful if he weren’t such a raging douchebag. There’s a pivotal argument in the third act with Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), who calls Jobs out for all of his persistent moral shortcomings.
Fassbender plays Steve Jobs as this ethically challenged, emotionally unmoored figure, and the rest of the cast helps make this work by playing moral counterpoint for the wretch. Picture people holding down a hot air balloon with rope. The task is to keep this thing grounded as much as possible. Rogen’s Wozniak is one of these people, and he’s mainly seeking recognition for his hard work. There’s also steady and loyal Andy Hertzfeld played by Michael Stuhlbarg, and a warmly paternal Jeff Daniels as former Pepsi and Apple CEO John Sculley.
The most set upon moral figure in the film, though, is Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet). She’s portrayed as a kind of power-personal assistant to Steve Jobs, though her marketing roles at Apple and NeXT were probably far different. Ditto her overall career trajectory. Hoffman apparently retired in 1995, years before the iMac launch, though she’s at Jobs’ side in the film in each act. This deviation makes sense for the sake of the screenplay, which requires a character as morally resolute as Jobs is morally aloof. In real life, Hoffman was considered the person who was best able to stand up to Jobs, and that kind of figure--the immovable moral object to Steve Job’s unstoppable narcissistic force--is necessary in this particular type of story. Winslet disappears into the role. I didn’t even realize it was her until the second act of Steve Jobs. Many of the best scenes involve Winslet verbally grappling with Fassbender.
There are Sorkin-isms throughout the briskly paced Steve Jobs (e.g., the walk-and-talks, the trivia, the impeccable ripostes), and Boyle does a good job of differentiating the look and feel of each section of the film. The world of 1984 is shot in a grainy 16mm, for instance. The film’s acts were shot independently, which allowed the actors to tailor their performances to each year before reconsidering their character for the next. Certain gags or lines or ticks in a performance call back to others.
As strong as Steve Jobs is for its first two-thirds, it gets a little soft by 1998. I don’t know if it’s the Hollywood aspect (or Danny Boyle) shining through at this point, but the movie begins making these overtures of Steve Jobs’ redemption, all with a heavy dose of crowd-pleasing schmaltz. I didn’t buy any of it. A cringeworthy cutesiness also creeps into the iMac section of the movie. Here and there, Steve critiques the limitations of 1990s technology and hints at 21st century Apple products, as if we’re watching a winky retroactive commercial. The lines are clunkers when they come, and one of them is a total eyeroller.
It doesn’t help that I’d been rolling my eyes at the triumphalism that the movie takes on in the final act even as elements of the script do its best to keep the man and the story on the ground. The argument between Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak I mentioned earlier offers a great encapsulation of the film’s underlying concerns. And sure, while the story chronicles one man’s ability to overcome years of failure, Steve Jobs does this mostly by screwing over other people. During the NeXT section of the film, Jobs calls it “playing the orchestra.” In real life, most people call it “being a dick.”
In A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge has his three visions, wakes up in the morning, and reforms. In Steve Jobs, there are three products and a hint of a better Steve Jobs in the future. Bah humbug. In real life, Steve Jobs woke up after the iMac was released and was still Steve Jobs.