It’s not often you see a biopic of a well known business man. Notable entries would include ‘The Social Network’ which revolves around Mark Zuckerberg and the creation of Facebook, ‘The Aviator’ about the life of the eccentric Howard Hughes, ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ the (hopefully hyperbolic) recounting of Jordan Belfort’s scurrilous exploits in the world of finance, and perhaps the little seen ‘The Insider’ profiling Jeffery Wigand in the tobacco industry. It’s more common to see these sort of biographical screen interpretations rendered for politicians or for individuals involved in a political arena (like the recent ‘Bridge of Spies’).
Steve Jobs is in a thin crowd.
Considering this it should be no surprise that the box of story tricks is wide open for writer and linguistic machine-gunner Aaron Sorkin. If you are a casual viewer and made the assumption that this movie would follow a traditional biographical formula like I unfortunately did – know that it does not. This movie, is not about Steve Jobs’ life. By that I mean we don’t get dragged through Jobs’ childhood, nor are we made to squirm in our seats while watching him cope with cancer later in life. For those who are considering whether or not to watch this film, you should be aware that this movie takes place in only 3 locations. Each setting also shares a common trait: they are each the venue for a product launch that Jobs is heading.
This is a bold creative strategy, and if you aren’t prepared (as I was not), it can unsettle the viewing experience. Once acclimated, it works well to deliver distinct vignettes into the mindset and overall goals of Jobs at three very different points in his life.
While Steve Jobs boasts performances that will certainly be strong contenders come Oscar season, the film still has some issues. Its strong suit is its dialogue and characters, which are conjured, and I do mean conjured, by Aaron Sorkin. Its primary weakness is its lack of cohesive story and purpose, which are also a result of Sorkin.
The ensemble cast is a vibrating and scintillating throughout. The focus and chemistry exude shades of ‘Network’ (1976). Fassbender as Jobs has a manic drive with a honeycomb mind capable of compartmentalizing everything from parental truancy to corporate exile. He barrels through scenes like a train, covering miles in the time it would take you or I to brush our teeth. Fassbender will be on a multitude of awards list BUT the award for most subtle force of nature has to go to Kate Winslet, who plays marketing director and hangman’s noose Joanna Hoffman. Her slow but steady pressure on Jobs asserts the greatest change in his emotional disposition outside of “Failure.” More attention will be directed to Seth Rogen for the star power that he brings, and certainly his performance as Steve Wozniak is notable, but Michael Stuhalburg turns in another revelatory performance as Andy Hertzfeld. Someone is bound to actually pay attention to his career sooner or later.
Danny Boyle’s (Slumdog Millionaire, Trainspotting) direction is reserved and most visible in the actors’ performances. Those who are familiar with Boyle’s filmography will notice the absence of his trademark visual flair. For an auteur like Boyle this is an unusual yet refreshing step in favor of advancing the script over his visual agenda. Another missing trademark is the distinctive and often mood altering score prevalent in a Boyle film. Composer Daniel Pemberton does a fine job of appointing his melodies but they lack the fluid aggression that so often manage his film’s dynamics.
All of this seems to be in favor of elevating the script to the forefront of the viewer’s consciousness, which at first and maybe even second glance would appear to be a wise decision. Retrospectively it may have proven to be a flaw.
This next section will contain mild spoilers, so if you have not seen the film yet, you may want to step away at this point and return at a later date.
The film clips along magnificently for the 1st act. It is exhausting to keep up with (as are all the subsequent acts) but effective in establishing Jobs as a character. The 2nd act is where the movie stumbles, specifically the 2nd act climax. It is here in the traditional 3-act structure that our protagonist (whether hero or anti-hero) should struggle or suffer the most. After launching the Mac, which was a failure, Jobs has moved on to his, ahem, ‘NeXT’ project. Here it is revealed by Jobs to Hoffman that NeXT will essentially be a failure because it is only half-way completed and is far too expensive for the market it’s intended for. At this point it appears Jobs is on a clear path to self destruction and ruin. He has a product he knows will be a high profile failure and seems completely ambivalent to the consequences that are sure to follow. That denial is unsurprising for the Jobs character that Sorkin has built and is effective in making the audience believe that he is cracking up and self-imploding.
Moments after the audience has this revelation, Jobs has an encounter in a window-lit hallway with John Scully (rendered magnificently by Sorkin veteran Jeff Daniels), the CEO of Apple who oversaw Jobs ousting from the company he founded. At first it appears this will be a “come to Jesus moment” for Jobs (who seemed to hold a lot of respect for Scully earlier in the 1st act) and truly make his 2nd act low complete; thus giving this character a human and sympathetic dynamic as well as giving the film as a whole the necessary dip in pace and tone.
What happens instead is a 15-minute shouting match where we jump backwards and forwards in time as we re-live Jobs’ dismissal from Apple. He retains his combative positioning and essentially shreds the olive branch being extended by Scully. This strict adherence to form would be acceptable if he’d been ‘made low’ just moments later, proceeding the bust of NeXt. But in the film’s very next exchange, he reveals to Joanna Hoffman, that his strategy isn’t to create a new computer, but to wait and create an OS for NeXT that Apple will need and must buy from him with the stipulation that he be returned to power. As a result, Jobs is never in any real danger of finishing on bottom.
As an audience member I felt cheated by this. I felt that Jobs, despite having a product fail and being booted from his company, was never truly on bottom, robbing the story and character of some great potential melodrama. Did Sorkin want the audience to feel like Jobs was always on top of his game? Did he never intend to show us a Jobs broken down and defeated? Then why bother with a story structure so firmly entrenched in the traditional 3-act arc? I do think it’s possible to have an anti-hero who’s always “winning” and put forth a well-rounded story, but Sorkin doesn’t opt for that path. He either intended for that moment to function as a traditional 2nd act climax, in which case I believe he and Danny Boyle came up just shy, or he wanted a more fluid character study piece, in which case he laid the foundation improperly for the whole story. This does not ruin the entire movie, but it is a massive structural flaw in my estimation.
At the end of the film, story structure confusion, coupled with the movie’s conclusion, made me question what I had gained as a viewer at all. What had I learned from these characters? What did Jobs truly want? I have to confess that I felt confused about the movie’s purpose and intention as I left the theatre, and I’m not sure there was anything of substance that has stayed with me. This is truly a shame given the talent and technical quality present on screen. For that, I will still say that this is a good film. It hurts me a lot to say that because it could have been a great film. I am confident it will receive Oscar nominations in several different categories, but largely, while I enjoyed the piece, I’d have to consider it a missed opportunity
While 'Steve Jobs' has all the ingredients and a majority of the recipe for a classic, it's missing an egg and 10 more minutes in the oven. We thoroughly enjoyed the piece but it comes up just shy of it's potential.