My opinions about the real Steve Jobs and more specifically Apple are… complicated. When I was younger I absolutely hated Apple’s computers, and indeed I’m still not a fan of them. They were these strange devices that came with mice that only had a single button on them and having been raised on Windows I always found their OS interface to be strange and foreign. You couldn’t play PC games on their computers, they often had inferior memory allotments, and there really just didn’t seem to be any real benefits to them. They were devices that chose style over substance at every turn and they weren’t for me. Different strokes for different folks I suppose, but this struck deeper. To me Apple computer was a fraud and Steve Jobs was snake oil salesman who used expensive advertising to hypnotize the masses into thinking his crappy computers were somehow going to make them more creative any more effectively than Nike sneakers were going to make people into basketball stars, and the fact that he was able to sell this bullshit to people who were supposedly above being advertised to really offended me. Then I got over myself and bought an iPod. I loved that little thing and still do, it still works today and I listen to it almost every day. I also own an iPone and it works pretty well. What can I say, I’m still firmly on Team Windows when it comes to home PCs but Steve Jobs’ obsession with industrial design makes a lot more sense to me when it’s being applied to devices I have to carry around with me than it does with devices that sit on your desk. That having been said, I still don’t buy 75% of the hype that surrounds that company or that man, and I go into any movie about either with a chip firmly on my shoulder.
I probably shouldn’t have been too worried that this would be some sort of hagiography as the film was written by Arron Sorkin, the creator of “The West Wing” and a noted luddite whose screenplay for The Social Network cast Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg as a sort of sociopathic nerd who cheated his friends out of a good deal of money in an amoral quest to build something that would gain him wider acceptance. Indeed, Sorkin shows no hesitation to depict all the hubris, ego, and questionable behavior that Walter Isaacson cataloged in his 2011 biography upon which this biopic is officially based. Sorkin also doesn’t feel the need to turn the film into some kind of showcase of how awesome Apples products supposedly were. His focus is very much on the personal, almost to a fault, and in the way that Jobs’ personality injected itself into his products for better or worse.
Of course Sorkin has a very distinct style of writing which is highly stylized and theatrical. In fact more than any other Sorkin project this really feels almost like it could be a play in that Sorkin has decided to set the film over the course of three days (give or take a brief flashback or two), one in 1984, one in 1988, and one in 1997 and each coinciding with the launch of one of his signature product launches: the first for the Macintosh, the second for the NeXT, and the third for the iMac. This is an approach that has its pros and cons. Given that each segment is depicting the couple hours of frantic last-minute preparations before each launch the format certainly allows Sorkin to indulge in his usual fast paced walk-and-talk banter but there’s a certain theatrical license required to make it work. Sorkin fills each of these segments with a lot of exposition between characters who should already know what they’re talking and you definitely need to suspend disbelief a lot to accept that all these storylines are being compressed into these few days instead of occurring over the course of years.
The Social Network saw Aaron Sorkin’s usual optimism intentionally deluded by director David Fincher’s icy touch but here his screenplay is brought to screen by the British maximalist Danny Boyle. Boyle is known to make movies that are extremely kinetic and heavily edited and feature a lot of music and a lot of running around, so this is a little bit of a change of pace for him. Boyle does settle down his style a little bit in order to allow Sorkin’s conversations to come to the forefront and more or less play out uninterrupted, but he does add in his own little flourishes. For one thing, he occasionally has images play out on the walls non- diegeticly in order to illustrate certain things. Also he’s opted to use different filming formats for each of the three segments: the 1984 segment is shot with 16mm film, the 1988 segment is 35mm, and the 1997 segment was shot digitally using the latest technology. Normally this kind of format trickery is done in order to give a period feel by mimicking the cinema of different eras but 35mm was the dominant filming format in all three of those years so something else is going on here. I’m thinking that Boyle is trying to suggest Jobs as maturing; that as the grain dissipates from the image the man’s life gains more clarity and he becomes more of a fully formed human being.
Steve Jobs has a pretty substantial supporting cast at its center which most prominently features Kate Winslett as Jobs’ confidant and main scene partner Joanna Hoffman. I don’t know whether or not the real Hoffman interacted with Jobs like this, she certainly had a reputation for being able to stand up to him but I kind of doubt that the two were really joined at the hip like this and that her role was expanded so that Jobs would have someone to interact with in certain scenes. This has the somewhat problematic effect of making her feel more like a long-suffering secretary than an accomplished marketing executive, but her role as a scene partner is effective and Winslett does a pretty good job of fading into the part even if the character’s Polish accent oddly only gets thicker as she ages. Seth Rogen is here as Steve Wozniak and seems to be taking a page from his friend Jonah Hill’s playbook by appearing in a serious-ish Aaron Sorkin penned film but the casting is not a stunt and he actually seems to be working harder to really resemble his real life analogue than some of his co-stars. Michael Stuhlbarg seems to be working even harder to looks like Andy Hertzfeld and seems to have gained weight for the role. I hardly even recognized him. Of course I did recognize Jeff Daniels in his role as John Scully. He’s alright but he maybe needs to step away from all these roles as authority figures in suits. The one actor who does seem to struggle a bit with the Sorkin dialogue is Katherine Waterston, who plays Jobs’ baby-mama, though some of the writing she has to deal with might be a little weaker than the rest.
Of course at the center of the film is Michael Fassbender, and actor who’s pretty much done no wrong since he burst onto the scene in 2008. I will give him this, Fassbender certainly gives this his all and is pretty good in certain scenes, but I also can’t shake the feeling that he’s been completely miscast. The biggest problem is pretty obvious: Michael Fassbender does not looks or sound anything like the real Steve Jobs. To be fair, in the third segment he does a pretty serviceable job of imitating the late period black turtleneck wearing Steve Jobs (let’s just ignore the fact that he wouldn’t actually start looking and dressing like that until a few years later) but the problem is a lot bigger in the first and second segments. Fassbender just isn’t a geek. He’s a muscular and commanding presence with a chiseled jaw and he looks significantly more capable of beating people up than Jobs or anyone else who was in the computer industry in the eighties should. He certainly doesn’t looks like the dark brown haired and slightly pudgy guy who you can see in stock footage on Youtube giving the actual presentations being dramatized here. Danny Boyle had to be aware of this problem when he cast Fassbender so I’m guessing he was trying to fly in the face of the recent-ish trend of actors trying to do pitch-perfect imitations of celebrities in pursuit of Oscars and may also have been some kind of attempt to make Jobs actually look like the rock star that people perceive him to be. It’s a testament to Fassbender’s skill as an actor that he almost makes this work and if you’re willing to just go with it it doesn’t get too much in the way of the movie, but I do think it was a bad decision on Boyle’s part.
There’s a line in Steve Jobs where someone says “It’s not binary. You can be decent and gifted at the same time.” That’s a bit on the nose, but that’s not the point. The concept of the binary does seem to come up a lot in Jobs’ life. In Walter Isaacson’s book it’s frequently described that Jobs almost never held a middle-ground when someone turned in a design, he always either said it was “brilliant” or that it was “shitty.” In fact there’s a certain binary quality to reading that Isaacson book. Half the time you’re reading it you think he’s a psychotic asshole and the other half you find yourself thinking “hmmm, maybe this guy was brilliant after all.” Sorkin’s screenplay does recognize this and wisely does try to render Jobs in all his complexity. However, there’s also a binary quality to Danny Boyle’s film as well in that certain elements of it really work and certain elements really don’t. There are a couple of scenes like Jobs’ cross-cut argument with Scully and Wozniak big confrontation with Jobs that are really great, but then there are other moments where Sorkin’s contrivances made kind of cringe. What isn’t binary is my opinion of the film, which I ultimately think is a mixed bag of a movie that maybe tried a little too hard to think differently about the biopic format for its own good. To its credit though I do think the good choices outweigh the bad and I’ll also say that the film gets better as it goes with the third segment working significantly better than the first.
*** out of Four