Directed by Danny Boyle
Opens October 9
The yakfests of Aaron Sorkin, more concerned with their own delivery and devices than organic dramatic development, would seem to be made for the Age of the iPhone and The Story of Jobs. Danny Boyle’s three-act Steve Jobs is handily packaged around three product launches, making its apotheosis of marketing fairly explicit, yet it continues to be lauded for acknowledging the Human Flaws of a steely-nerved innovator. But, just to be clear about the simplicity of Sorkin’s portrait: this is a film that concludes with Jobs enjoying not only roaring applause from a captive audience but also basking in that particular kind of wonder-tinged understanding reserved for daughters in the movies. Tough Dad, we understand, finally/sorry.
The repetitive film takes the form of backstage dramas for three unveilings of three Apple products—the first Mac, the NEXT cube, and the first iMac—which pantingly keep up with Jobs (Michael Fassbender) as he spars with his Eastern European right-hand woman (Kate Winslet with vacillating accent), with the mother (Katharine Waterston) of his denied daughter and said daughter (three actresses for three ages), with Apple executive/veteran John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), with Woz (Seth Rogen in his Rogen suit), and assorted other interlocutors who pop up to complete his portrait. And, truth in advertising, it is his portrait: the supporting cast might as well be figments of his own brain, so focused is Sorkin’s dialogue on reflecting Jobs back to himself. Without a strong partner like David Fincher in The Social Network, the shallow great-man-at-high-costs scenario reveals Sorkin as crafting essentially a pop-psychology sitcom (Zingers! The Steve Jobs Story), surrounding his protagonist with problematic women, a child in his image, and chest-thumping challengers.
Whereas many interpreted Alex Gibney’s Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine as an adversarial portrait, in fact Gibney began exactly where you must with an already mythologized personality: with questions, not the ready-made answers. Yet Boyle and Sorkin, despite the screenwriter’s press-conference bluster about avoiding the biopic at all costs, create a film that’s not appreciably different from your average tortured-genius biopic, minus the torture. The streamlining of Steve Jobs (and Steve Jobs)—three acts, no outside world, speed and chatter and entrances and exits—serves mainly a lazy writer’s needs, allowing characters to appear, lines to be placed, and scenes to be stopped at will. (More than one line inadvertently underlines the arbitrary staging; when one character asks, “What are you doing here?” I genuinely wanted to know.)
Through the perpetual hype machine of its walk-and-talks and face-offs, Steve Jobs effectively embraces the debasing marketing of creativity as a lifestyle catchphrase. It’s always tough calling a historical film to task for what it doesn’t address, but at this point in history and the reception of the Jobs myth, any genuinely curious and adventuresome dramatist could find fruitful material in the lifestyle-product doublespeak that masks monopoly as genius and ignores the profiteering built on its fun technology—not to mention the luxury products’ elision of part of the populace in the visual and practical imagination, with the complicity of self-regarding creative classes happy to be a part of the legend. Throughout, Boyle substitutes flash for artistry—compare how Fincher lays the groundwork for charting Facebook’s impact starting with the very first campus-traversing sequence of The Social Network.
And so we get a browbeating lesson in working with difficult people that stacks the deck by marveling at its subject’s genius (or his woundedness) at every turn and by casting a heartthrob (Michael Fassbender) to embody a man who in many clips has the charisma of a praying mantis. It’s a long way from Hunger but this committed actor immediately grasps Jobs’s nerd machismo and Asperger-esque blinkered intelligence. Yet Jobs is at base a frankly tedious antihero to watch—this isn’t an actors’ showcase so much as just a showcase—and Sorkin axiom Jeff Daniels is rote casting as Sculley, leaning on the same series of Newsroom mannerisms. Boyle’s attempt to bolster the mythology of their feud by cutting between the pair’s past and present face-offs momentarily turns the movie, ridiculously, into a trailer for itself. Which, perhaps, is just as well in a movie that has little insight to offer but plenty to say about it.