I remember being in elementary school when Apple launched the iMac, and with it the ubiquitous “Think Different” campaign. Classroom walls were adorned with black-and-white glossies of Jobs’ icons; people like Jim Henson, Albert Einstein, Jane Goodall, selected for their recognizability to fifth-grade teachers. While it’s definitely not the first marketing campaign that impacted me, being a child who played with toys and ate cereal, it’s the first time I remember knowing that I was looking at something designed to sell a product. Possibly more importantly, it’s the first time I remember knowing this and deciding that I didn’t care. The people in these photos – the ones I could name, anyway – they were undeniably “cool” in my brain. They were smart and cool. They were cool because they were smart. I was smart, but I was far from cool, even by the incredibly low coolness standards of a fifth-grader in 1998. Was Apple for smart and cool people? If I got my parents to buy one, would I become cooler? Looking back on it now, the answer was “no” and I knew it, but the answer was also… sort of yes.
And so it goes with Aaron Sorkin and Danny Boyle’s “Steve Jobs”, roughly the third movie about the late Apple CEO in as many years. The film has a simple three-act framing device, taking place backstage at three separate shareholder meeting/product launches; one in 1984, another in 1988, and culminating in 1998 at the release of the iMac. Jobs (played by Michael Fassbender) rotates through the same basic procedure before each event, going on a tour of all the people he personally affects. His guide in this routine is his best friend, head of marketing, and confidante Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet). During these pre-show rituals, he is forced into conversations and arguments with his former CEO-turned-father-figure John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), famous tech scientists Steve Wozniack (Seth Rogen) and Andy Hertzfeldt (Michael Stuhlbarg), and finally his ex-girlfriend Chrisann (Katherine Waterston) and his estranged daughter Lisa (played at different ages by Perla Haney-Jardine, Ripley Sobo, and Makenzie Moss). The rotation changes, occasional flashbacks sneak in, and each person’s relationship to Jobs changes, but the same basic structure stays the same.
Steve Jobs represents the utmost essence of both Sorkin and Boyle, and all the positives and negatives that assumes. Danny Boyle loves movement, he likes his camera and his actors to be constantly in motion. His only scenes of stillness are planned and deliberate. This makes him a perfect foil for Sorkin’s trademark inhumanly-paced dialogue. (Does this film feature people having arguments in a hallway? You bet your sweet ass people are arguing in a hallway.) In a way, the two complement each other’s style so well it seems odd that they haven’t worked together before. This combination makes Steve Jobs work, for the most part.
I add the qualifier “for the most part”, because Steve Jobs also contains both men’s trademark flaws, primarily not knowing when to quit. Several scenes push just one line too far, taking a perfect moment and then ruining it by pointing out how perfect it is. For example, during a flashback scene, Jobs and Woz are arguing about making the Apple II more accessible to external options, and Jobs yells that he wants the system “totally closed off, incompatible with anything else!” The point is clear, yet Sorkin still includes an extra line explaining “We’re not talking about the computer anymore”! This is Sorkin’s biggest flaw: He drops the mic, then picks it back up again and asks “Did… did you guys get that? Did you see why I dropped that there?”
Danny Boyle uses all his favorite tools and plays around with some interesting visual themes: Distances between people in empty rooms, close moments in Sorkin’s beloved hallways, noir lighting, stage lighting, motion and stillness, they’re all expertly deployed. We even get to experiment and interact with all the possible elements of a backstage environment like a series of mini-Birdmans. But occasionally he can’t help himself and will throw in a seemingly pointless harsh angle, or over-stylize a flashback to the point that it seems like parody. It’s a minor issue that happens for less than a minute each time, but when so much of this film revolves around visual pacing, that’s enough to be distracting.
If you can ignore or accept these minor flaws, Steve Jobs is supremely watchable and entertaining. Fassbender commands the screen, playing Jobs so much like an unstoppable force of nature that the film actually weakens when attempting to humanize him. It’s a performance so good that it forces the people around him to be better simply by having to keep up. Surprisingly, it’s Seth Rogen who comes closest to pulling away Fassbender’s thunder. Rogen plays Wozniak as a man constantly underestimated, one beleaguered by the constant bad luck of being the guy standing next to Steve Jobs. I mentioned earlier that Danny Boyle picks his moments of stillness and silence deliberately, and none are as powerful or as memorable as the private and public callout scenes between Woz and Jobs. Even though Jobs inevitably wins the scene, as Tony Zhou would put it, it’s not for lack of trying on Woz’s part. If there’s any justice, this is a career-changer for Rogen.
People are going to come into this film wanting it to take a side on the “Steve Jobs: Genius or Asshole” debate. Sorkin and Boyle don’t seem to care about that. Although it leans heavily toward “asshole genius”, they aren’t the least bit concerned about how Jobs learned his design philosophies or how he died of cancer because he thought he could cure it by eating more watermelon. This film centers on the evolution and deconstruction of black-and-white photo Steve Jobs, the creation of Jobs The Icon, and the cult of personality he developed. This is why Sorkin’s “what happens backstage” modus operandi works so well here. Just as ten-year-old me secretly knew those classroom posters were trying to sell a product and didn’t care, deep down we purposefully ignore that the black turtleneck Steve Jobs was a glorified Billy Mays or Vince From Shamwow. It’s really better that way, just as Steve Jobs the movie is a wonderful watch – assuming you can ignore the parts that aren’t.Liked This? Share It!