I saw Steve Jobs on Veteran’s Day, after it was already pulled from 2,000 theaters. I had enough faith in screenwriter Aaron Sorkin and director Danny Boyle–that the two of them, together, were going to make something acerbic and visually stunning, intelligent and sympathetic. Sorkin could be the conflicted half–idealistic, but jaded–and Boyle could be the nurturing half–idealistic, but hopeful.
Yet, I’m running out of cute adjectives to defend reasons why Sorkin and Boyle could be the right writer/director duo for this particular project, because deep down, I yearned for the encore partnership of Sorkin and director David Fincher, the collaboration of the ages.
However, Sorkin and Boyle were still trying for a breath of fresh air. It’s distinct from any traditional biopic, or any traditional movie of the past few years. Because it’s essentially a three-act play, a forgotten disclaimer, which, in a way, sealed its destiny to not be very financially successful, with a very different kind of seal from, say, a Steve Jobs movie starring Ashton Kutcher.
With that three-act play format, Sorkin’s playing homage to an era of film that wanted to transport all the things that made theater great–the acting and the writing–rather than being overtly cinematic. By focusing on three chapters of Jobs’ life–the launches of the Apple Macintosh, NeXT, and the iMac–Sorkin is able to follow the same man, in different circumstances in the grand scheme of things, but in similar circumstances if you had a microscope–a narrative technique that allows some fun with time, place, and characters, who act more like hyper-verbal leitmotifs than actual people. And the best part is, in every act of the film, Jobs is preparing to go on stage. Because, well, get it?
That’s sort of at odds with Boyle’s style, which is one that is incredibly cinematic, visual, uplifting, personable–the kind of style that relies on a movie camera and an editing room to portray well. But ironically, that’s precisely what makes Sorkin’s script a bit more humane, and more than a screenwriter’s experiment. Thanks to Boyle, the film is unafraid to be sentimental, apologetic, and well, preachy.
The flip-side of being a somewhat gooey film is that it makes it easy to humanize an unlikable character. We meet Steve Jobs (Michael Fassbender, in a thrilling performance)–demanding, egotistical, nervous. We are meant to hate him, but also sort of like him, in all his Sorkinesque, anti-hero glory–because he’s brilliant, and witty, and hurls all those hyper-articulate insults that we wished we had the power to say.
In the course of the film, Jobs confides in his marketing executive, Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet, a good foil for Fassbender’s ultra-intensity), who plays every female role in Jobs’ life, with the exception of a lover; demands the impossible from his engineer, Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg, in what is probably destined to be an overlooked performance); shuns his ex-girlfriend, Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston, a serviceable performance) and his daughter; disregards his old friend’s Steve Wozniak’s (Seth Rogen, doing his best in a dramatic role) contributions to Apple; and tries to both reject and hold on to the only father figure in his life, Apple CEO, John Sculley (Jeff Daniels, who is really wonderful here). At the end of the day, though, it’s evident that Sorkin and Boyle agree on one thing: we’re supposed to like their version of Jobs, because underneath all that assholism is a poor boy who wants to love, and be loved.
While watching it, I couldn’t stop thinking about The Social Network, for obvious reasons–Sorkin, tech, prestige picture. The Social Network was both timely and timeless–a masterpiece, and the best film of the decade, thus far. To put Steve Jobs’ box-office failure in perspective, it’s integral to look at why The Social Network was so wildly successful. Simply put, The Social Network came out when Facebook just became a really big deal, and Mark Zuckerberg was sort of an enigmatic wunderkind in the tech industry. Sorkin was able to mold his version of Movie Zuck into whatever Tech Movie Universe he wanted to drop this kid in, and it would feel persuasive. Because at its heart, The Social Network was not just a Greek tragedy, but it’s about a time and place–a social commentary, if you will–and not really about Mark Zuckerberg at all.
That said, Steve Jobs is really about Steve Jobs, the man. Or it was really trying to be–or trying to concoct a version of Steve Jobs that may or may not be real. But too much is already known about Steve Jobs–too many movies, documentaries, and books have attempted to both mortalize and immortalize the man–that the public is surely suffering from Jobs fatigue. That’s the only part where the movie feels a bit disingenuous, in the sense that it’s atoning for a real deceased man’s sins, or sometimes, preaching to a deceased man, but that deceased man has been fictionalized to serve plot purposes. Yes, it’s pretty ambitious, but also pretty silly. Because the public already knows too much about the man to believe in a cheesy movie version of him–and that’s where I think Fincher would have done better.
But it’s even sillier to dwell on what-ifs. Not to say that Steve Jobs is not the movie it was supposed to be. In fact, it was simply the case that it was not the movie I wanted it to be. Despite everything, though, Steve Jobs is still a very good movie–great, even. Visually stunning, beautifully edited, sharply written–it demands your attention, if you care about dialogue, acting, cinematography. However, even if it did sell tickets along with its critical acclaim, there wasn’t any promise that the general masses would have enjoyed an esoteric three-act play disguised as a movie.
Sorkin and Boyle has made a film that’s conceptually absurd in its ambitions–sometimes chaotic, sometimes sweet, sometimes moralizing–but it sort of captures what a cinematic-theater sub-genre could be like, with all its loose ends and tied knots, creating what is ultimately a staged spectacle projected onto the silver screen.