Steve Jobs is a film made of unceasing movement and crisis; that it creates this impression under the appearance of urgency and tension is pretty remarkable, considering that the entire thing more or less takes place over three extended dialogue scenes - each of them prior to a big product launch, each product with its own hype and promise and potential. In formatting their story this way, writer Aaron Sorkin and director Danny Boyle have created something like the purest distillation of the traditional biographical film (it is literally nothing but a collection of three anecdotes) while neatly sidestepping most of the arbitrary rhythm that a film in the genre is obliged to dance by.
Movie Review: Steve Jobs
By Ben Gruchow
October 29, 2015
Sorkin is a gifted writer, good with dialogue scenes exchanged by two or more participants at rapid pace, even better when the dialogue is involved or technical and he doesn’t feel the need to contextualize or break down the specifics for the audience. His films are like celebrations of intelligence and articulation; if they also sometimes come off like implicit celebrations of arrogance, maybe that’s an inseparable part of the package. This movie is right in his wheelhouse. Steve Jobs was a notoriously arrogant man, and I have a feeling that there were a few people in the industry who pivoted to assessing him as a genius because they realized they weren’t getting any traction or closure by identifying character flaws.
In this movie, Steve Wozniak (played by Seth Rogen) tells Jobs, “You can’t write code. You’re not an engineer. You’re not a designer. You can’t put a hammer to a nail. What do you do?” Jobs replies, “I play the orchestra.” This moment, spoken during the first scene, sets the wavelength for the rest of the movie, dealing eloquently with the fact that Jobs revolutionized major segments of the computing industry largely through the power of branding and emotional appeal, while others built and designed the products themselves. This isn’t to suggest that Jobs’ role wasn’t crucial or any less significant, just more pragmatic. The movie puts this in the open, acknowledges it, and then moves on to try and answer, in its own way, why Jobs was right where he should have been.
Jobs himself is played by Michael Fassbender, and his work here reminds me of Frank Langella as President Nixon in 2008’s excellent Frost/Nixon. Fassbender bears little if any physical resemblance to Jobs; certainly, it’s not a patch on Ashton Kutcher’s unsettlingly accurate impersonation from 2013’s Jobs. Yet it’s a masterful performance; like Langella, Fassbender is intent upon channeling the essence of Jobs rather than the look. We see him at odds with others (seemingly everyone, at some points) and witness the cost of his compulsion to look at the big picture, and we see a mercilessly intelligent, arrogant, and yet deeply confused individual. This, the movie tells us, is Steve Jobs, and we believe it.
I’ve always thought that the big dichotomy with the real-life Jobs was the warring philosophy behind his products - between the drive to deliver hardware and software as an emotional statement that could and would be used by anyone and everyone, and the decisive assertion that the consumer had no idea what they wanted until they were told what they wanted (the unspoken conclusion on this sentence being “told what they wanted, by himself”). This movie is laser-focused on that dichotomy, and it’s where Sorkin’s instinct for dialogue serves the movie best.
Steve Jobs is attractively shot and put together in a disarming way, and it’s actually pretty impressive how the movie makes it most of the way to the final third before it starts to engage in the kind of verbal grandstanding that Sorkin tends to indulge in - erudite, clearly intelligent, but loud and opinionated and much less like dialogue than prepared statements and conclusions. What Boyle does with the look of the movie is stealthier: the first sequence, in 1984, has the grainy and low-contrast look of footage and film from that era. The second sequence, in 1988, has a much clearer and more stately appearance, and we finally arrive at high-gloss digital sheen in the third sequence, set in 1998.
Usually, when filmmakers attempt to evoke different time periods with the visual look of the film, they shoot digitally and apply filters, digital grain and noise, digital scratches. This movie does not bear the hallmarks of digital footage manipulated to look “old,” and here, I learned that the 1984 sequences were shot on Super 16mm film, the 1988 sequences on Super 35mm film, and the 1998 sequences on the Red Epic digital system. It’s a gimmick, but it’s an honest one, and I appreciated the filmmakers’ decision to go all the way with the illusion and evocation.
The temperament of Steve Jobs, pitched pretty consistently save for a couple of moments near the end, affects how the movie is best considered. Each of the scenes here hold a rough corroboration with a chapter in the 2011 book on Jobs by Walter Isaacson (for information’s sake, they’re Chapters 15, 18, and 27). That book serves as source material for the movie, with other key moments that weren’t directly adapted referred to over the course of conversation in the movie’s present (the similarity between the GUIs for LISA and Xerox PARC, which was either correlation or causation depending on who you read, is a prime example of this; another one is the neat way that the ultimate fate of the Apple Macintosh - and of Jobs’ first go-round with Apple - is shown in micro-scenes nested inside each other while the principals talk about it in the present).
That temperament is responsible for the flow and structure of the film, or maybe the structure gave birth to the temperament. Either way, you could grade Steve Jobs only a partial success as an adaptation. It helps here to consider that the book is over 600 pages long, and that the nature of Jobs’ work with Apple was ambiguous and (sometimes) rocky enough to fill out a much more crowded film, but it still presents a more complete and textured portrait of the man than the movie does. Much of the movie’s conflict is centered around Jobs’ muted and academic relationship with the girl who could be his daughter, also named Lisa; the weight of this conflict in comparison to all of the others throughout Jobs’ career is justified (or at least explained) by an admonishment given to Jobs late in the movie by his longtime assistant and confidante Joanna (Kate Winslet, rather effortlessly playing to three different time periods of age and experience and weariness), but this is not the only way the same conclusion could have been arrived at, nor the most courageous.
As a biography, the movie is pretty enthralling, and it’s proof-positive that the real impact in biographical films comes from the little moments and asides, not the big machinery of moving through predetermined points in the central figure’s life or career, telling as it does complete character arcs within the constriction of a handful of brisk and unsentimental scenes. The resolutions provided are not pat or glossed over. The rhythm is assured and consistent without being rote. This is one of the few biographical films where a potential sequel, done in the same way, would contain measurable artistic merit.