“Steve Jobs” is the second film of the past three years to focus on the eponymous founder of Apple computers. This one, based on the biography by Walter Isaacson, is much better than the first. This one is smart enough to understand the difficulties in compressing a lifetime into a two-hour film, and has instead opted to focus on three significant events, the launches of three devices: Macintosh in 1984, NeXT in 1988, and iMac in 1998. The movie features only a handful of characters, and thanks to the relatively small scale of the production, each one is given time to shine. It’s as intelligent a film as any to come out this year, and its intelligence comes not from what it does, but rather what it doesn’t do.
Everything revolves around Steve Jobs. No decision is made without his say so. When he sees a nameless employee tuck a floppy disk into his shirt pocket only minutes before the Macintosh launch, the gesture becomes an essential part of the presentation. “Take his shirt,” says Apple marketing director Joanna Hoffman. “No,” says Jobs, “it needs to be white.” As Hoffman looks for a shirt (which must be white AND Jobs’s size AND have a breast pocket), Jobs is confronted by his former lover, Chrisann, who brings daughter, Lisa, with her. A point of contention between them is whether or not Lisa is Steve’s child. He maintains that she is not; Chrisann disagrees. When Lisa learns that the nickname for the Macintosh is the Lisa, she assumes it was named for her. Jobs shuts her down quickly: “It’s just a coincidence,” he tells her.
A fundamental question lies at the heart of the movie: was Steve Jobs a genius or a hack? It’s a question, I believe, that the movie does its best not to answer. He is portrayed less than flatteringly, and it doesn’t seem like anyone was willing to come forward and defend him. He refuses Chrisann sufficient child support, doesn’t pay his daughter’s college tuition, regularly bullies and threatens his underlings, and ignores advice from everyone around him, even Steve Wozniak. As Woz points out, Jobs knows nothing about how computers work. He can’t build one, he can’t write code, and he is standing on the shoulders of countless others. Jobs explains it thusly: “Musicians play their instruments. I play the orchestra.” The audience is left to interpret the facts however they want, and are trusted with making their own judgments, something many biopics are afraid to do.
The film was directed by Danny Boyle and written by Aaron Sorkin. Boyle tends to interject himself into his films, give them a unique personality entirely his own. When dealing with off-kilter drug addicts, these little touches enhance the film. When dealing with tech billionaires, it becomes annoying and distracting. As Jobs is telling Joanna the story of a satellite launch, footage of the launch appears on the wall behind them, as if we needed the accompaniment. Earlier in the film, Jobs expresses his desire to shut the exit signs off. We are then treated to a drive-by shot of an exit sign. Blink and you miss it. At one second long, its length is unjustifiable. And in a movie featuring dialogue written by Aaron Sorkin, there’s no need for visual flair.
Boyle is probably the worst part of the movie, although that’s not to say he’s a bad director or that he did a bad job. His camera is always aware of itself. He’s always looking to interrupt the action, to color it in his own vision, a vision that more often than not clashes with what the story calls for. “Slumdog Millionaire” made India, one of the most impoverished nations in the world, look colorful and fun and dreamy. He tries to keep his films in one world while directing from another, and the mix of the two is often jarring and awkward. It’s as if he’s afraid to let the film speak for itself.
The strength of the screenplay is its modesty of scope and the respect it pays the characters. Simply put, it is smart. Sorkin writes geniuses better than anyone; unfortunately, everyone is a genius when Sorkin writes. There are no stupid people, no slow or ungifted people, in his universe. But “Steve Jobs” is alive, living and breathing, a pulse deep beneath the surface. It moves through one-and-a-half decades of time, fourteen years of people’s lives, knowing just when to slow down and take its time. Three days in three different years feel like one fluid moment, the audience moving in and out.
The structure lends itself well to three distinct acts, and the film builds to several confrontations. This is Sorkin at his giddiest, two people trying to one-up each other, a verbal sparring. He writes insults and jabs and one-liners with such abandon and glee that the words themselves become the stars, the climax of the drama that has preceded them. The cast employs the writing with appropriate gravity. They understand the weight of each word, every syllable. Kate Winslet does a lot with an understated role, lending pathos both to her own character and to Jobs himself. Seth Rogen plays Wozniak with the good nature and timidity of a small child, never as cool or popular as his big brother. Daniels, Katherine Waterston, and Michael Stuhlbarg play their parts admirably, never overshadowing the star of the show.
First and foremost, this is Michael Fassbender’s movie. He’s on all the posters, in all the trailers. He’s given the best lines. He is the center of gravity, the eye of the storm. It’s a difficult role to pull off, having to play repulsiveness as a crutch, a coping mechanism. Jobs keeps everyone at a distance. Joanna Hoffman is closest to him, and one gets the feeling that he allows it out of admiration, a professional sign of respect. She spends most of the movie trying to tame him, keep him from alienating the few people he stills calls his friends. But Steve Jobs is not a friendly person. He is ambitious and impatient, callous and ruthless. Above all else, he stands for the future.
Is that such a bad thing? Jobs finds it difficult to tolerate anyone who doesn’t share his vision, who doesn’t see the world the way he does. The problem is, as John Sculley tells him, “No one sees the world the way you do.” Steve Jobs becomes a much more sympathetic character when one considers just how lonely he is. Only at the end of the movie does he attempt true reconciliation with his daughter, this coming after years of distance and neglect. Whether or not one has any sympathy for him is a personal decision, but no one is a horrible person all of the time.
“Steve Jobs” tackles all the complexities and nuances of a man in two hours and makes it fly by. This film is one of the best-paced I’ve seen in years. Constantly in motion, gears always turning, much like the man himself. The audience never feels cheated or slighted or manipulated. Everything is out on the table for all to see. Steve Jobs was a less-than-perfect human being, but he was also a human being, prone to anger and frustration just like any of us. The worst of him was magnified by his drive, his insistence that the way he saw the world was the right way, and that others should follow him blindly. The film concludes with Jobs walking offstage. He is obscured by popping flashbulbs, and by closeness.
Written by Lucas Dispoto