Alright! Alright! Enough with the damn Steve Jobs Movies! I get it, you’re all broken up that the guy who paid people to design your trendy PHONE died! You have my sympathies but – Christ Almighty – this is the third one of these goddamn things I’ve had to watch in about 2 ½ years – if they make one more I’m pretty sure he gets to join THE AVENGERS! I’m sorry but for all this hyperbolic elevation you’d think the guy had fucking cured ca…
Um. Eh… Okay, so, probably should’ve picked a different reference there.
So, here’s the thing kiddos: I am consistently at a disadvantage when approaching movies, books, articles, whatever about Steve Jobs. See, all these projects – whether they’re bullshit corpse-fellating hagiography like that Ashton Kutcher thing or meditative documentaries like Alex Gibney’s or this new Danny Boyle/Aaron Sorkin joint (that’s as close to a “takedown” as anyone will probably make) – all start from the presumption that Jobs is just so fucking complex and interesting… and I’ve just never been onboard with that. Not every camera-friendly rich guy whose name you know is Charles Foster Kane. Sorry.
True, I never have been and never will be an Apple Guy, but I’m also not a Yankees fan and I can still acknowledge that Joe Torre had an interesting life. But Steve Jobs? Sorry, there was never mystery wrapped in an enigma inside a turtleneck there for me. I know plenty of entitled, too-clever-by-half self-righteous pricks who think they’re God’s gift to their chosen field because they’re good showmen (we can sense our own, after all) so The iCult never really had a chance at grabbing me.
As far as I’ve always been concerned, Steve Jobs (the man and myth) mostly struck me as a micro-managing hype-man whose main contribution to technological history was proving that with enough curvy edges, slick advertising, cutsie-poo naming schemes and retro-Boomer form-over-function aesthetic pandering even a computer could become a trendy hipster status-symbol and cultivating a “cool” hyperconfident “genius bro” persona that all-but singlehandedly birthed a generation of smart-alecky Silicon Valley shitheads so smug and obnoxious that even I kind of want to beat the shit out of nerds these days.
What’s interesting about this particular Steve Jobs movie, then, is that it seems to (mostly) agree with me on those points. I stress mostly – Hollywood does so love it’s Great Man biopics, after all, even when the unwelcome pest of reality forces them to spend 90% of the screentime on “but he was also kind of an asshole.”
The movie is sort of a comeback vehicle for director Danny Boyle, after the compulsively-watchable yet unavoidably terrible TRANCE turned out to be a colossal disaster and after enough time had passed for people to start admitting that no amount of positive vibes about seeing a movie entirely about brown people win Oscars could mitigate SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE being just so much schmaltzy middlebrow pablum. Here, he’s tasked with adding visual flourish to another zinger-filled Aaron Sorkin chatterbox screenplay that aims to build a thematic arc about Jobs’ alleged genius and undisputed personality failings out of the backstage melodrama at the launch events for the Macintosh, the Next Cube and finally the iMac.
The structure is a fun conceit, maybe a little too clever (and proud of it’s cleverness) by half, but you can see where it makes sense: The general public’s conception of Steve Jobs was shaped almost-entirely by his carefully cultivated stage persona at various product unveilings and corporate events, so in a way pulling back the curtain on his activities there probably feels more authentic than trying to dramatize what went on in his life otherwise – the only place where the gimmick stumbles is that, once we’ve seen it play out twice we not only know how all the beats are going to go… we’ve also already figured out where the beats are going to start skipping in order to provide closure and the semblance of a character arc – the full title might as well be “STEVE JOBS: I WAS A FUCKING DOUCHEBAG FOR YEARS BUT THEN ONE DAY I GOT A LITTLE BETTER BECAUSE REASONS.”
Sorkin’s screenplay (which feels shockingly naturalistic, as though in the tech sector inner-circles he’s at last found a world where it’s almost plausible that EVERYONE talks like Aaron Sorkin) has basically two thematic “big ideas” about Jobs and/or digital age “Great Men” in general, expressed through his relationship with two recurring characters: His obvious affection but arms-length care for his daughter Lisa (all while spending decades denying her paternity) here stands-in for his dueling obsession with control and inability to take responsibility, while Seth Rogen’s Steve Wozniak pops up once per-segment to voice the concerns of old-school computing devotees whom the film posits Jobs’ actively-hostile alienation of as a metaphor for his “my way or the highway” approach to life in general.
Meanwhile, Kate Winslet does the heavy lifting as Jobs’ just-human-enough personal assistant, putting her formidable emoting skills to use at instructing the audience when we’re supposed to find Steve endearing versus when we’re supposed to follow a more organic inclination to slap a variety of smug looks off his fucking face. Surprising absolutely no one, she turns out to be the secret weapon in terms of making both the story (it’s hard to ignore otherwise that the only “stakes” here are whether or not an unfathomably wealthy bastard will become more wealthy) and Jobs himself relatable to us mere mortals.
The Lisa material is set up to form the “heart” of the film, in as much as she gets the climactic resolution that’s supposed to indicate her father’s revealed humanity and form an ironic mirror to his paternal-surrogate relationship with Jeff Daniels’ Apple CEO John Sculley (what would a Great Man Biopic be, after all, without a lot of Bad Dad psychoanalysis?); but the back-and-forth with Wozniak honestly feels like it has more thematic meat to it – not in the least because Jobs’ chief sin in Woz’s eyes – callously refusing to even glance approvingly in the direction of the hardworking Apple II developer team – feels so much more cut-and-dry in it’s stubborn pettiness. The film slyly posits a kind of “FOX & THE HOUND” relationship between the two, i.e. the cool, trendy hipster and the authentically-dorky workbench-hobbyist being destined to wind up at odds and straining to maintain the mutual loyalty of their earlier friendship anyway.
Sorkin, at least, hands Woz most of the best zingers: While depicting their famous disagreement over whether to provide extra equipment slots on the original Apple in order to allow user-modifications in violation of Jobs’ desire for a closed-system that won’t play well with others, he declares that computers aren’t supposed to have human flaws and that he won’t build Steve’s (human flaws) into this one. I’m gonna assume my biases in that debate are self evident, so obviously yes I wanted to stand up and cheer every time the movie yielded the floor to Rogen unloading a barrage of oldschool nerd grievances straight from the heart of everyone still living who prefers computers to be fucking computers instead of fashion accessories or conversation pieces.
Between Rogen as the showman and Winslet as the far and away MVP, it almost feels like Michael Fassbender gets lost in the noise a bit as Jobs himself. He’s fine, but the movie never actually wants him to stop being largely inscrutable which mutes the range a bit, plus there’s a distracting affectation happening with the accent that kept pulling me out of the moment. Eventually, I couldn’t shake the sense that an overall more interesting movie might have been made by keeping Jobs himself offscreen entirely and just focus on the more compelling characters basking (or wincing) in his glow… but I don’t wanna dwell on that idea lest someone take it and make another of these damn movies.
Still, Boyle’s direction (while not as perfectly matched to Sorkin’s style as David Fincher’s in THE SOCIAL NETWORK) keeps everything moving and visually interesting considering the whole thing pretty much happens across a bunch of hallways and backstage greenrooms – it’s a two hour movie but it breezes by feeling like something only half that long. And, hell… for a whole two hours I was almost sold on the idea of Steve Jobs as an intrinsically interesting figure – and that’s not an insubstantial something.