Allow me to indulge myself in the most obvious comparison I can humanly muster for analyzing Steve Jobs: it is a little like Apple, the company ushered into the modern age by the titular behemoth of this film, who, with said ushering, may have ushered in that modern age with it. Which is to say, Steve Jobs is sleek in its interface, pinpoint in its clarity and ease-of-use, slightly idiosyncratic in its egotistical imperfections, vaguely refreshing and unique, and when you chew away the eccentricity and the fat, not all that different from anything else on the market. With its highly literate, theatrical three-act structure that eschews the conventional “life story” approach for a just slightly less conventional “process-oriented, real-time discover-the-man-as-he-works” parade of sequences, Steve Jobs promises something different, maybe something revolutionary. Like Apple, or any number of other vacantly, circumstantially liberal corporations like it – Google, the Democrats – its superficial differences only serve to mask its pat, corporate nature.
Taking place backstage just before three product launches that shook, or failed to shake, the foundation of society, Steve Jobs double fists problem-solving thrills and quasi-psychological “heart of darkness” character analysis – itself pat and expected after a handful of years of similar features in the form of the similary process-oriented David Fincher’s The Social Network, Steven Spieldberg’s Lincoln and Morten Tyldum’s The Imitation Game. Beyond that, the film’s analysis of Jobs is manufactured for middlebrow acceptance. All the stops are there. He has daddy issues with a daughter he won’t acknowledge. He secretly adores her but is afraid of human contact. He spends the better part of twenty years monomaniacally, oppressively fixating on his technological toys so as to avoid the world he dislikes while also recreating that world in his image and under his God complex. And lo and behold, secretly, all along, he did it because he loved his daughter after all, and his gift to the world, his technology, was really his gift to her.
Oh yes, and Steve Jobs is cruel, indifferent, mercurial, and oddly lovable because, the modern age, the old-fashioned earnestness of hagiography and unabashed love must give way to the more socially acceptable tide of questioning, vexing love. Steve Jobs is a film about a volatile myth, but it does not so much destroy that myth as it aggrandizes its very volatility; it is profoundly scabrous and humiliatingly challenging, and yet, like Apple itself, it manages to turn self-deprecating character flaws into successes and markers of heroism. It posits, essentially, not only that great men are bad people, but that their greatness just make make their badness good. Not the quintessential Great Man tale, but still its own form of the same. Not radical cinema, but “just enough” middlebrow cinema. “Just enough” depth to not seem superficial, “just enough” structural gamesmanship to not seem conventional, and “just enough” critique to not seem fawning and infatuated with Steve Jobs the man. But deep down you know the film would be first in line for the next Apple launch.
The film fails as character study then, but it is often a rousing exercise as live wire theater, with Danny Boyle’s vertiginous character wholeheartedly failing to jumble us around the ripcords of Jobs’ mind a la last year’s Birdman, but entirely succeeding at thrusting us into the backstage life of public presentations. Aaron Sorkin’s delectably difficult, acidic dialogue too is tremendously invigorating for its sheer vitriol in the classic tradition of the screwball comedy. Watching Michael Fassbinder (Jobs) duke it out with Kate Winslet (who plays his second-in-command and only semblance of sanity ) and Seth Rogen (essaying Apple II inventor Steve Wozniak, who is the unimaginative humanist to Jobs’ maniacal concoction of id and ego) is never less than thrilling cinema in the maxi-packed mode both Boyle and Sorkin prefer, roiling around us and having its way with us so. It is, of course, speaking loudly without saying anything, but if you have enough sound, sometimes the ensuing fury is enough.
Still, it remains troubling to douse the little voice in your head asking “so what?” when it’s all said and done. These days, you know what you’re getting when you venture into an Aaron Sorkin production. There will be walking. There will be talking. You may forget that one can occur without the other. But the schtick is aging, and Sorkin, like him or not, has not evolved as a writer over the years. He continues to rely on the crutches of human flesh – his actors – to keep his dialogue from hobbling around on its somewhat creaky over-zealousness. And he has himself a fine set of actors with Steve Jobs. None of them are necessarily exploring any realms of character you wouldn’t expect, but they deliver the dialogue with the appropriate spit and fire, convincing us that all the pre-ordained, pre-packaged writing really is as organically chaotic and even entropic as it wants to be. Steve Jobs is a Rude Goldberg device then, a meticulously mounted production masquerading as an outlaw or a freak of nature. It is sleekly mounted, corporate Oscarbait expending every ounce of its energy hiding its Oscarbait airs. A valiant effort, but also a faintly dispiriting one.
Admittedly, nice stylistic touches abound, even if they don’t go far enough. Boyle, ever the celluloid provocateur, severs the umbilical cords linking the later portions of the 1900s with his tripartite film, shooting the 1984 sequence on grainy, immediate 16mm stock, upgrading to crisp and classical 35mm for the year of ’88, and finally giving in to the digital future with the film’s closing in 1998. The cinema itself transitions as the world around it does, inducing a requiem for an analog world before ultimately submitting to the will of its subject and giving itself over to the ultra-clear, antiseptic, metallic harshness of digital framing that subtly critiques Jobs with more energy than any of the dialogue can muster.
As such, one is tempted to cry foul on the film’s ninth inning endorsement of the mantra of Jobs, but one can see how Boyle, an early adopter of digital cinematography, would agree that a deep seated humanity lies somewhere in wait within the harsh and cold exterior of the futurist Jobs after all. Fassbender is predatory as hell in the role, but Steve Jobs feeds on the enigma of its subject and preys with him, daring itself to traipse with him, and to assault with him. The extent to which the film is dumbfounded by its own opinion of Jobs – it doesn’t so much hate or love him as love him because it hates him – is admirable and bewildering. Even when it scorns him, the camera clearly worships him with saintlike excess.
Yet the camera doesn’t do anything else. If the film fashions itself a modern day Citizen Kane, it barely presents a visual thesis. The camera swoons around Jobs, but it doesn’t comment on him, debate with him, stir his soul, or crush him. I suppose the ever-moving camera clues us into the precious secret that Jobs had little free time. Fair enough, but with a film north of two hours, you expect a little more. Boyle’s direction is ecstatic but faceless; he doesn’t even try to frame or subdivide the characters to explore their shifting power dynamics. For a film that has characters on the move so often, you expect someone would have thought about character blocking as a narrative tool or a mechanism of expression, rather than simply a fact of life, a burden to be overcome.
There’s kinetic experiential cinema to be had in Steve Jobs, but the film clearly wants so much more for itself. The entire narrative conceit – Jobs as the failed father – is Hollywood hokum, a superficial character failing lulling us into a sense of false insecurity as the film tacitly fails to address the real, systemic, and above all corporate nature of Jobs that man. It chooses its battles, questioning him for his failures as a father because it wants to locate a soul in superior fatherhood and preserve the American tradition of patriarchy. It tacitly fails to question Jobs the elitist whose heartlessness may have reduced his workers to shambles. The film’s view, as is the view of so many Great Man Biopics: who cares about the common people, when the Great Man’s Great Harvard-attending children are at a loss?
Accuse the film of myopia, sure, but also of moving away from its better impulses. Everything that burns brightly about Jobs – the verisimilitude of place and the theater of the backstage – was fulfilled with more ferocity and economy in the Opera sequence of Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation. Jobs merely sprinkles a little dialectic hurt on top for pleasure. The dialogue does burn. Sometimes it even scorches. That it fails to do anything else is not the problem. That it expends all of its energy insisting on how it in fact does do so much more to get into the heart of Steve Jobs the man – that’s just no fun at all.