In his book Creativity Inc., which details the founding of Pixar, Ed Catmull likens the presence of fellow co-founder Steve Jobs to the famous 1980s Maxwell tape commercial, with the dude in the suit being blown back full force — tie, cocktail, lampshade and all— by the sheer power of his stereo system. According to Catmull, everyone else was always the dude in the suit, and the stereo system was always Jobs. Steve Jobs does nothing to disprove Catmull’s analogy of Jobs as an intense, driven, borderline psychotic individual whose life had controversy, ambivalence and intrigue to spare. Written by Aaron Sorkin, one of the few auteurist screenwriters of today, the film invites much comparison to his masterful script for The Social Network five years back, which likewise focused on an ambivalent, controversial, intensely driven individual who ended up forever changing the world as we know it. Social Network was helmed by David Fincher, a director of notoriously misanthropic and exquisitely dark films, who was originally slated to do Jobs before Danny Boyle stepped in.
The movie’s structure is an ambitious somersault off the diving board. It takes place backstage at three different launches of new Apple products in 1984, 1988 and 1998. In each segment, a different Jobs appears: hard-charging, young and cold at first, wizened, bespectacled and softer by the last. In all three incarnations, Michael Fassbender’s mastery of Sorkin’s language is sensational, and although he looks not much like the Apple co-founder, his command of the man’s psyche is never in doubt. Fassbender is backed by strong support from Katherine Waterston as the mother of Jobs’ child, Seth Rogen as his closest techie colleague, Jeff Daniels as his boss and pseudo-father figure and a curiously inconsequential Kate Winslet as his Polish-accented staffer, whose role is to basically natter at him during her every scene in the movie.
Boyle, a virtuoso director in his own right, is much more of an exuberant presence behind the camera, a foil to Fincher’s trademark restraint and detached, clinical observation. Boyle’s credits include the Oscar-sweeping Slumdog Millionaire and the British indie gems Trainspotting and Shallow Grave. Sorkin’s screenplay is a three-act play transposed to celluloid with minimal-to-no scripted visual flourishes and a mammoth spread of back-and-forth rat-a-tat exchanges. It’s clear at once that pairing Boyle’s hyperkinetic camera with Sorkin-speak makes for a somewhat uneven marriage. Sorkin’s speedy, whip-smart dialogue does not flow seamlessly with the visual pyrotechnics Boyle conjures.
Sorkin’s version of Jobs is a fusion of the intellect-speak Sorkin has perfected on shows like The West Wing and The Newsroom. Sorkin knows exactly what genius sounds like, and his lines thrum with cerebral vigor. There is brain candy in every sentence, which fits the persona of one of the 20th century’s brightest, swiftest and sometimes most cunning minds like a suit. “We’re not a pit crew at Daytona,” a beleaguered engineer complains, “This can’t be fixed in seconds.” “You didn’t have seconds,” Jobs fires back, “You had three weeks — the universe was created in a third of that time!” As played by Fassbender, Jobs is a whirlwind that sometimes threatens to suck the audience into midair, leaving them no clue what argument he’s having, or what the topic of conversation is. The film occasionally threatens to get caught up in the winds of its own tornado.
However, there is an ace in the hole in Sorkin’s plot, a heart which the humanistic Boyle underlines, and that is Jobs’ relationship with his little girl, Lisa Brennan-Jobs. While Steve Jobs may not deliver quite the emotional payload that Social Network did, the film lands its strongest punches during its scenes of the reluctant father relationship between Jobs and Lisa. “She’s not my daughter!” Jobs insists flatly in 1984, but by 1998 he says “Come on in, honey,” when he thinks it’s her knocking outside the door. The most moving scenes come at the end and enable the film to finish strong, when Jobs refuses to unveil the iMac until he gets to read one of Lisa’s college newspaper articles.
Lisa first draws an abstract painting on the Macintosh when she is five years old and her father bursts her balloon, telling her the logic board in the machine being named “Lisa” is merely a coincidence. Fourteen years later, Boyle and Sorkin have turned the tables dramatically and it is Jobs who is desperate to win his daughter over. For once in his life, nothing is more important to him than letting his daughter know he loves her — perhaps the only empathetic struggle a character like him undergoes. This is ultimately the secret to the biopic’s success. Towards the end, Seth Rogen’s Steve Wozniak tells Jobs, “The difference between you and me is, you’re an asshole and I’m not.” The film makes no bones about that, but contends that there was more to Jobs as he grew humbled and older before passing away from cancer in 2011, than met the eye.
Steve Jobs plays for free at Cornell Cinema on Wednesday, October 14 at 9pm.