“Wow, Steve Jobs was an asshole.”
That’s pretty much the only comment you’ll say to yourself once you leave Danny Boyle’s new movie Steve Jobs. Perhaps you’ll also come out dazzled by Boyle’s visual gimmicks and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s verbal sparring—the nifty features that come with the new and improved Jobs movie. “Easily the best-looking movie I’ve seen this year,” I heard some people whispering as they left CineArts, where the advance screening of Steve Jobs played last Thursday, October 15th. I don’t necessarily disagree with the statement; in fact, it’s an entirely appropriate one, given the film’s sleek design—guaranteed to appeal to millennials of all shapes and sizes. But like any iPhone upgrade, Steve Jobs, despite being cool-looking, is hardly a necessity to one’s life.
The latest (and perhaps most definitive) version stars Michael Fassbender as the titular techno-genius. We whizz across three major epochs in Jobs’s life: 1984 (the introduction of the middling Apple Computer), 1988 (the launch of the failed NeXT cube), and 1998 (the release of the iMac, an industry game-changer). The dark days of Ashton Kutcher as Jobs are over and done with. Jobs 2.0, as re-imagined by Fassbender, is a cocksure pencil-neck who unashamedly steps on the toes of the plebeian mortals below him. These mortals include Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), Jobs’s jilted partner and the inventor of the Apple I and II systems; Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), Jobs’s aggrieved assistant; John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), the Apple CEO who unsuccessfully tries to keep Jobs under his thumb; and Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston), Jobs’s ex-girlfriend and mother of his first child, whom Jobs abandons and ignores in his relentless quest to the top of techdom.
A cursory glance at the film’s title clues the viewer in on its rather unsubtle agenda. It’s aiming to be the Steve Jobs movie—all the fallacies, the highs, and the lows of the Apple Empire will be addressed, either directly or indirectly. Big names have been attached to the project: the kinds that get nominated for awards. Aaron Sorkin, the celebrated screenwriter of The West Wing, Moneyball, The Social Network, and many other 21st century entertainments, writes the film’s dialogue. He bases his screenplay on the high-profile biography by Walter Isaacson, former CEO of CNN who spends his spare time writing biographies of culturally accepted geniuses (Einstein, Ben Franklin, and apparently Jobs). Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millioniare, 127 Hours, Trainspotting) directs. The performances are all admirably handled; in fact, they make the entire movie. Michael Fassbender does a nice job at conveying Jobs’s smugness, even if his job at “becoming” Jobs (i.e., sporting John Lennon granny glasses and a black turtleneck) wasn’t particularly hard. Unusually, Kate Winslet and Jeff Daniels’s characters are mostly forgettable. However, Rogen and Waterston (fresh from her leading role in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice) both impress as the pissed-off underlings who have to deal with Jobs’s pretentious posturings. Waterston in the key role as Jobs’s ex especially delights: her convincing turn as the awkward, angry, jilted jane in Jobs’s life should be nominated for an Oscar.
If the performances are top-notch, the screenwriting (by the overrated Aaron Sorkin) is not. Let me first say that I’m not a fan of Sorkin’s style of screenwriting, which all but dominates Steve Jobs. The slangy banter of his characters is too quippy and delivered too rapidly to offer anything in the way of substance. Sorkin realizes how little the actual meaning of his words matters, so he has his characters speak their lines at impossible speeds. In this way, he hopes his audience will forgive the dearth of concreteness in his films and instead leave wowed by the “jazzy” speed of his dialogue. He also tends to write in a zinger every three minutes or so. Insufferably cutesy quips pepper most of Sorkin’s work in The West Wing, The Newsroom, and Moneyball.
And, as a final “fuck you” to realistic dialogue, everyone–not just the lead heavies–speaks in this curious dialect of “Sorkinese.” As a result, his characters feel like parodies of themselves: smug, stuck-up individuals who are overly confident in their own skills and sound like carbon copies of Sorkin himself. It wouldn’t be bothersome if only Jobs talked like this. But when everybody–the tech underlings, the mom, the CEOs–talks in this jargon for this long, it gets incredibly tiresome. It comes crashing down at the end of act 2, where Jobs and John Sculley trade verbal jabs in a sloppy montage where the film turns into a visual and narrative mess. (Who am I looking at? Where are we spatially? Who’s that guy? Wait, a third location? What are they even talking about?!? Wait, can we slow down and listen to what that guy was saying? Oh goddammit… I’ve forgotten, and at this point, I don’t really care to remember.)
Sorkin has proven he’s better as a collaborator than as a stand-alone auteur. In The Social Network, for example, director David Fincher was able to keep the focus away from the Sorkinese, fitting his stylized visual sheen perfectly to Sorkin’s brand of rat-tat-tat lightning-speech. In that picture, the storytelling is confident and the tech-whizz has a morally dubious personality with layers like an anti-hero sandwich. The results were out of this world, one of the best movies of the 2010s. Of course, inevitable comparisons must be made between The Social Network and Steve Jobs, two Sorkinzed films similar both in style and content. Unlike The Social Network, which nicely balanced the creative talents of both Fincher and Sorkin, in Steve Jobs Sorkin easily dominates his “partner” Danny Boyle.
Surprisingly, however, the worst parts of the film are contained in small pockets. Even more surprisingly, the combination of Sorkin and Boyle actually succeeds for what the picture wants to be. Steve Jobs wants to take a cold, hard, revisionist look at Jobs’s legacy–and the film’s almost comical mismatch of styles serves this goal well. Boyle thinks he’s making an idolizing portrait of Jobs, so he directs with the same pseudo-exciting heft that punctuated his recent film Slumdog Millionaire. Sorkin thinks he’s overthrowing the Jobs legacy, so he writes like Jobs wasn’t the real Jobs, but rather a conglomeration of every single bully and stuck-up girl Sorkin met in high school. (It’s his grand revenge!) The amount of cynical contempt mixed with the almost equal amount of empty visual panache creates a curious beast of a movie that mirrors the persona of Steve Jobs: flashy, rather ugly on the inside, but chic enough that it’ll be readily accepted by the mainstream.
Its main narrative line-of-focus—Jobs’ sour relationship with his out-of-wedlock daughter Lisa—is Steve Jobs’s main selling point. “Come hear the truth about Jobs!” you can almost hear the advertisements shrilling to the unsuspecting viewer. And even though we don’t necessarily need to be reminded of Steve Jobs’s nasty underside, it’s still highly entertaining to see this blockbuster biopic veer into trashy melodrama. One wonders how any of this was greenlit. (The film’s ending, a blatantly hokey cop-out that undoes the film’s entire revisionist trajectory, reminds us why such a project is still seeing the light of day. Something something Steve Jobs was human, as we all are. “Bullshit,” we mutter under our breaths.)
In one hairbrained scene, Jobs confronts his daughter just before the launch of the Macintosh. While the adults scream at Jobs for refusing to pay for his daughter’s cost-of-living and her education, she’s quietly playing in the corner with the Macintosh. As she composes a computerized doodle, the bastard father Jobs suddenly takes notice. “Look what I drew,” she coos to Papa Steve, “it’s an abstract.” He looks longingly at the screen. It’s nothing but a series of ugly, pixelated lines drawn in varying colors. “She used MacPaint,” Jobs whispers, choking up with tears welling in his eyes. It’s at this point that he coughs up a tidy sum of money to Mama Jobs and the young Lisa. Scenes like this have absolutely no basis in reality—much less Jobs’s—but they demonstrate the wacky allure that accidentally sprung from the good-bad-ugly threesome of Isaacson-Boyle-Sorkin. It feels trashy, mocking the man after he’s in the grave. But we perversely like it.
In the end, however, Steve Jobs is a talky chore that leaves a metallic aftertaste in the viewer’s mouth once it’s over. At its best, it’s a soap-opera-esque critique of Jobs, who’s rightfully more regarded for his ingenious advertising and innovations than he is for his bass-ackward private life. Even so, the picture does not (and should not) satisfy anyone’s questions on what exactly makes Steve Jobs tick. For 120 minutes, it hammers its own point home: Steve Jobs was an asshole. Alright, so what? It’s not like every great genius of our world was an infallible do-gooder. Sorkin and Boyle are so hell-bent on reminding the viewer of Jobs’s nasty persona that they often lose sight of the bigger picture—namely, how the bad and the brilliant sides of Jobs mesh together to create the world we live in today. With Steve Jobs, we’re one step closer to seeing—but not understanding—Jobs’s lasting legacy in our world. Once we sift through the Sorkinese, what we’re left with is a lot of unconstructive criticism and blanket hate.
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