MOVIE REVIEW: "Steve Jobs"

For my review of the previous Steve Jobs film starring Ashton Kutcher, click here.  This piece was published by The Stake.)

As a fan of both Apple products (generally) and Aaron Sorkin (conditionally), I’d been following the saga of Sorkin’s latest film, Steve Jobs, for a while. I was excited when David Fincher, with whom Sorkin collaborated to excellent result with The Social Network, was attached to the project, with Christian Bale set to star. I was alternately confused and disappointed when Bale dropped. He was replaced by Michael Fassbender, an excellent actor in his own right, but not necessarily a chameleon of the same stripes as Bale. When Fincher left the project, Danny Boyle signed on, whose Frankenstein play I enjoyed but for whom I have less affection for as a director. How could Michael Fassbender, whom I enjoyed in Fish Tank, X-Men: First Class and to a lesser extent X-Men: Days of Future Past, disappear into the distinctiveness of Steve Jobs, especially since Jobs’ doppelganger Ashton Kutcher was already employed in his own biopic?

As it turns out, Fassbender is fantastic and the best part of the film. At once magnetic and calculating, he is a marvel to watch even if his Irish-German burr slips out at times. Unfortunately, the rest of Steve Jobs suffers due to its weaker elements, and I left the theater not exactly wowed by the film. Steve Jobs is structurally interesting, at the very least. It takes place over three long scenes, each before a massive product launch: the 1984 Mac Computer launch, the 1988 NeXT computer launch meant to challenge the people at Apple he feels mistreated him, and the 1998 iMac launch. Sorkin’s script reportedly spans 180 pages of, one assumes, nearly all dialogue. 

Even if you had managed to avoid news of this movie, it’s obvious by both theme and form that Steve Jobs is an Aaron Sorkin film. The lighting-fast dialogue, the walk and talks, the dialogue he borrows from himself on several unintentionally funny occasions –there are only so many times he can have his characters say “don’t talk to me like I’m other people” across his various projects before his fans will notice (they have, actually). 

The film starts out dynamically–the pace and eloquent dialogue fly at rapid, musical rates, and it’s entirely thrilling to see all the pieces moving together. It’s only when the second act is fully under way, when Jobs and John Sculley, the Apple CEO with whom Jobs works and tussles in equal measure, argue dramatically before the NeXT product launch, intercut with the board decision to oust Steve set against a dark night with pouring rain, that it’s clear that the first act is the strongest of the three.

The Sorkin-ness of the script is most evident in its treatment of Steve Jobs himself. It’s a culmination of nearly every theme Sorkin has addressed in his work, borrowing elements of backstage intrigue from the ill-fated Studio 60 and the abhorrent The Newsroom, to his recent films Moneyball and The Social Network, the latter of which also centered on the struggles of a technological genius both revered and misunderstood. Jobs, as written by Sorkin, is the great white male hero, too smart for his own good, charming even as he is completely unpleasant and unlikable, surrounded by enemies and naysayers, along with the requisite supportive women and/or the women depicted as crazy or unreasonable, just as Mark Zuckerberg was scorned during his invention of Facebook; just as Billy Beane was nearly kicked off the Oakland Athletics squad for his implementation of the “moneyball” player strategy; just as Will McAvoy must deal with the network stooges and his own staff to deliver the news the way he wants to; just as Matt Albie and Danny Tripp must fight ratings battles and discordant writing staffs to keep their sketch comedy show on the air. 

Even the themes of fatherhood present in The West Wing (and Sports Night and Moneyball to an extent) can be seen here, as exemplified by the fraught relationship between Jobs and Sculley. However, Sorkin’s script for Steve Jobs differs from the rest of his work through an emphasis on the relationship with Lisa, the daughter whom he has so failed throughout her life. It is only towards the end of the film that there is even a hint of reconciliation, with Lisa backstage, bathed in the glow surrounding her father as he releases the iMac computer in 1998. Usually Sorkin father-figures are depicted as all-knowing and magnanimous, much like Jed Bartlet or even the film’s treatment of Sculley, but Sorkin here really makes a point of establishing just how much of a poor father Steve Jobs was to the daughter he refused to claim as his own for much of her life, which, as a Sorkin fan, was refreshing. 

There are several key weaknesses that undermine the success of the script as well as the film itself. Danny Boyle’s direction and the Alwin H. Küchler’s cinematography are probably the weakest parts, along with the score by Daniel Pemberton, which tragically veers all the way past maudlin into unpleasant and overwrought in the second act. Danny Boyle never met a Dutch angle he did not like, and after he throws one or two in there I was begging him to stop trying to show off. His decision to shoot the three acts of the film in, respectively, 16mm, 35mm, and digital, is inspired; the news segments and clips that demarcate the passing of time between each segment are far less so. As far as the acting goes, it’s really all about Fassbender and his strange, skeletal, electric creation that may or may not be Steve Jobs; while he doesn’t look or sound much like Jobs, Fassbender creates a much more indelible character than Ashton Kutcher, despite his uncanny resemblance to the man, ever managed in Jobs.

Kate Winslet is not given much to do outside of being the typical Sorkin supportive woman/voice of reason/conscience. Katherine Waterson, seemingly miscast, plays Chrisann Brennan as an overwrought, histrionic mop of a person, with little subtlety or compelling aspects to her frustration with Steve and her grief over his treatment of her and Lisa. The script seems to revel in his cruelty to her and aims to make it somewhat amusing to the audience, which is a missed opportunity for Sorkin to get out of his comfort zone. Jeff Daniels seems to be phoning it in as John Sculley, while Seth Rogen is given basically nothing to do except challenge Steve and look like a sad teddy bear. Say what you will about the Kutcher movie, but at least Josh Gad made us care about Steve Wozniak. Rogen fails at this important aspect of the character and the person, and thus it’s strange to hear Steve talk about how important “Woz” is to him; the film doesn’t give us any reason to believe in such a potent bond between the two men. In fact, the best interactions of any in this film are between Steve and the two younger actors who play Lisa, as Steve struggles to understand her actions around him and continues deny her mother support.

Jobs was adopted, and the film explores his resulting abandonment issues in a fairly heavy, almost clichéd way. Sculley serves as a father figure to Jobs in both the best and worst ways. The film hits the audience over the head with this fatherhood and abandonment theme over and over; Sculley’s sole purpose in this film is to show up at the Apple product launches and ask Steve about his feelings about being adopted, which is just poor, rather obvious writing. 

Ultimately, Steve Jobs, with its compelling central performance by Fassbender and its strong emotional center as represented by his relationship with Lisa, is much more likely to be worth your time than the mediocre Jobs movie of several years ago. You will be delighted by the first act, as I was, and then have to sigh gently as you are let down by the weaknesses of the following two segments of the film. Overall, though, the direction, music, and writing, despite Aaron Sorkin’s mostly-good script, make the film less than a true success.


  1. Wow. I think I will wait to see it and do a double feature with Jobs....Very detailed review!


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