A review of Steve Jobs
Steve Jobs has had a bit of a troubled history. Soon after releasing the universally acclaimed The Social Network, Sony clearly thought it had a good thing going and immediately hired Aaron Sorkin to write another movie about another mercurial Silicon Valley founder. The timing was right: Steve Jobs had never been more famous, had never been more prolific, and it seemed like the entire US population used at least one device that he invented. But soon after Sorkin’s script was finished, problems started cropping up. Leonardo DiCaprio and Christian Bale were both tabbed as early favorites to play Jobs, but both dropped out, along with director David Fincher. Current and former Apple executives attacked the movie before it even came out, along with Jobs' widow Laurene Powell, and for a while Steve Jobs seemed like the third rail of Hollywood. Undoubtedly unnerved, Sony itself dropped Jobs too, and the movie was left in the less certain hands of Michael Fassbender, Danny Boyle, and Universal Pictures.
Of course, it was still Sorkin’s script, so despite all of this turmoil there was still a pretty good chance that Steve Jobs was going to be pretty good. I got a chance to see it on Friday night, and while it’s not the first movie about Steve Jobs, or the most conventional, it’s certainly the best. Michael Fassbender is convincing as Jobs, the supporting cast is strong, and it’s probably the best writing Sorkin has done since The Social Network.
The film is structured like a three-act play, with the entire movie taking place over the course of three main scenes that are more or less in real time and include some flashbacks for some additional context. Each of the scenes take place in the minutes before one of Jobs' product launches: the Macintosh, the NeXT cube, and the iMac. You don’t really see much of the launches themselves, and as a result not much actually happens in the film. Steve Jobs is a character study, and it’s probably the most dialogue-heavy film Sorkin has written (which is saying something).
But dialogue is Sorkin’s expertise, and the dialogue in Steve Jobs is dense, fast-paced, humorous and engrossing. Sorkin makes Steve Jobs more about the man and less about the companies he founded or the effect he had on the world. This is a bit of a departure from The Social Network, which was obviously about Mark Zuckerberg but also had themes about our culture today and focused some of its time on other characters in Zuckerberg’s life. Not so here: as the film progresses, even the supporting character arcs are tied directly to Jobs'.
The movie opens with a 1974 interview with Arthur C. Clarke, a science fiction author and futurist who correctly predicts that one day, the room-size computer he’s standing next to will be obsolete and be replaced by terminals that users can use from their homes to do things like manage their bank accounts, buy theater tickets and look up information. This quick interview is meant as a juxtaposition, a point of comparison with the Steve Jobs who we’ll meet in this film: Steve Jobs, the futurist.
In Steve Jobs, Jobs is portrayed as someone who is so forward-thinking that his lack of acknowledgement of the present separates himself from the society he lives in. He doesn’t do himself any favors or make much of an effort to make himself less alone, but Sorkin shows that what separates Jobs from the rest of society is often the fact that his vision of the future is so clear that he’s baffled why everyone else doesn’t see the same thing. During the first couple acts much is made of the fact that when Jobs invents the Macintosh, he wants no part of the Apple II anymore, even refusing to acknowledge the Apple II team’s contribution to Apple as a whole (which was 70% of the Apple’s revenue when the Macintosh was announced). Jobs' insistence on moving on is portrayed as heartless in the beginning of the film, but by the end this ruthless attitude proves prescient, because after Jobs leaves and Apple doubles down on the Apple II, the company almost goes under because it forgets how to innovate.
That brings me to Michael Fassbender, who was the third choice to play Steve Jobs but plays him exceptionally. Fassbender commands your attention in every scene he’s in, and he shines brightest when he can use his natural mania to portray Jobs' intensity. His costumes and makeup are done well too, getting every detail right about his wardrobe while his makeup makes him believably age from 1984 Jobs to 1998 Jobs. Fassbender handles Sorkin’s dialogue with ease and it wouldn’t surprise me to see these two collaborate again in the future.
Kate Winslet plays Joanna Hoffman, Jobs' director of marketing and close confidante for all those years. She appears more than any other supporting cast member and plays a harried professional consistently on the edge of losing her sanity but never going over. Winslet is British but has an American accent in this movie that sounds believable enough, and like Fassbender is able to keep up with Sorkin’s dialogue well.
Seth Rogen, Jeff Daniels, and Michael Stuhlbarg play Steve Wozniak, John Sculley and Andy Hertzfield, and at the beginning of the film are the co-founder of Apple, the CEO of Apple, and the Macintosh team lead, respectively. Unlike Winslet’s character, each of these characters has their own mini-arc in their relationship with Jobs. Each of them are cast well and are believable in their roles, but Jeff Daniels is the standout. I wonder if Sorkin had him in mind to play Sculley when he was writing the movie, because his John Sculley sounds a lot like Will McAvoy from The Newsroom. Daniels' character is particularly important in this film because it’s his actions that drive Jobs' personal arc. It’s John Sculley and Steve Jobs that are in the most pivotal and riveting scene of the film, an argument in the second act which intersperses flashbacks to what happened between the first and second act. The acting, the dialogue, the editing, everything is perfectly done in this scene, and it comes together because of Daniels' nuanced portrayal of Sculley as a man who is angry, defiant and regretful all at the same time.
I should also mention Chrisann and Lisa Brennan, who make up the emotional half of Jobs' arc. In the first act, Jobs is vehemently denying that he is Lisa’s father, and uses some margin of error in the paternity test to imply that any of 28% of the men in the United States could be her father. Chrisann – Lisa’s mother – is played by Katherine Waterston, and she excels especially in the first act when Jobs is at his coldest emotionally. Like the rest of the cast, says her lines well, but her facial expressions and body language add so much more to each scene she’s in, and you do feel a lot of empathy for her character even though she doesn’t always make the best decisions. The three girls that play Lisa are also well-cast and I was especially impressed by the acting of Makenzie Moss, who plays Lisa at age 5.
There’s no doubt that this is a different film than it would have been if Fincher directed it, but Danny Boyle’s direction is also excellent. The film is well-shot and well-edited throughout, and has its fair share of Sorkin walk-and-talks. But Boyle does a really good job of making the dialogue scenes dynamic and visually interesting. It’d have been really easy for him to see all these scenes of dialogue, figure out where the actors were going to stand, figure out where the cameras were going to be, and then shoot the scenes, but instead Boyle augments some of the scenes with some visual flair. A couple scenes are set behind behind a big projector screen with a product presentation on the other side, which casts the characters as silhouettes against a larger than life display. In other scenes, flashbacks or flashforwards are cast on the walls surrounding the characters as they reference them, creatively showing the flashback while never losing the characters. I’d never seen this technique used outside of Splinter Cell: Conviction but it works well here, in moderation.
Daniel Pemberton wrote the film’s score, which parallels Jobs' character arc. It starts off brooding and tense in the first act, swells to an opera in the second act, and then returns to brooding and tense but a little mellower in the third act. Like the rest of the movie, the second act opera is the strongest (perhaps because it has the most identity), and the other two acts are fine, if unremarkable. To be fair, it’d have been hard to use a large bombastic score in a movie this dialogue-heavy without affecting the audibility of the dialogue, so it seems reasonable to assume that Boyle asked for a quieter score that belonged more in the background.
The most awkward part about Steve Jobs is that the film focuses on the part of his life before he became famous to the generation that’s most attached to his products today. As one character alluded to in the third act, by the time Jobs had returned to Apple and was preparing to launch the iMac, he had already won and perhaps the major drama was done with, but still, it might seem strange to many viewers to end the film before Jobs even invents the iPod. Sorkin tries to address this with several self-referential lines from Jobs that probably weren’t true but gives Jobs a little self-righteousness and the viewers a bit of a chuckle. One example (paraphrasing): “You know why I killed the Newton? The stylus. A stylus makes users unable to use the five styluses they were born with.” The rest of the movie is fascinating enough that maybe it won’t matter, but you have to wonder if some people will walk out disappointed that Jobs' later innovations are only obliquely referenced, not covered in detail.
After seeing Steve Jobs it seems strange to me that Laurene Powell and others at Apple have objected to this film being made. Besides Powell possibly convincing Bale, DiCaprio and Fincher to drop out of the project, the most visible protest was made by Tim Cook in the months leading up to the film’s release: “I think that a lot of people are trying to be opportunistic, and I hate this; it’s not a great part of our world.” Sorkin, understandably baffled by this statement, shot back: “Tim Cook should really see the movie before he decides what it is. If you’ve got a factory full of children in China assembling phones for 17 cents an hour, you’ve got a lot of nerve calling someone else opportunistic.” The media jumped on the second part of the statement (which is true), but the first part of his statement is interesting too, because it shows that Sorkin genuinely believes his portrayal of Steve Jobs is fair. Steve Jobs isn’t shot through rose-colored lenses by any means, but it’s certainly not a hit job either. It’s somewhere in the middle, portraying a man who consistently finds himself alone, a few steps ahead of the rest of the world. But while his aloneness is often self-inflicted, Jobs is often alone because no one can understand what he’s doing so far ahead of everyone else. And so whether or not Steve Jobs has a happy ending is left somewhat open-ended. And for a man so mercurial and often so controversial, isn’t that about as good as you can get?