Say what you will about The Social Network. It might have been a David Fincher-on-autopilot film whose Aaron Sorkin script was based on a wildly one-sided book and resorted to inventing a somewhat laughable reason for its Mark Zuckerberg to succeed (he wanted to impress a girl). For better or for worse, though, it created a plausible character and dramatically situated him on the battlefield where the modern world’s social and technological rules are being violently rewritten. Even though Sorkin had Walter Isaacson’s great, warts-and-all biography to draw from for his take on one of the immersive electronics era’s other great modern divisive tech populist billionaires, Steve Jobs is a far less interesting film about a far more fascinating person.
Jobs was, if nothing else, a phenomenal showman. Given the amount of humbug involved in his exquisitely choreographed product launches (displaying computers using the wrong operating systems), you could safely call him a huckster. So it makes sense that Sorkin would chuck the usual biopic arc and make the daring dramatic choice to break the story into three acts, each one set in the tension-choked minutes right before his newest launch: 1984 for the first Macintosh, 1988 for NeXT, and last in 1998 for the iMac. These are the minutes in which everything that Jobs had worked for was coming together, making them useful flashpoints.
Sorkin packs each of those three slots with backstage drama, with Jobs (Michael Fassbender) either haranguing or reassuring his long-suffering marketing director and “work wife” Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet, whose vaguely Eastern European accent cuts out like a weak radio signal) about the big new reveal that the assembled masses are chanting for like fans at a concert. Sorkin then brusquely jams in every other major character, who keep choosing that moment to show up and give Jobs the business. Jobs’s old garage-inventing buddy Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen doing bearded Seth Rogen), Macintosh co-creator Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg), former Apple CEO John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), and Lisa, the daughter Jobs refuses to acknowledge, all have it out with him in one way or the other. This turns the film at times into an almost self-parodying Sorkin walk-and-yell, with barbs, putdowns, and pithy jargonized blocks of exposition flying thick.
Sorkin seems to acknowledge the staginess of his approach, as does the unusually sedate director Danny Boyle, who contents himself with a couple camera tricks (screening Skylab footage onto a wall while Jobs talks about it to prove a point) but mostly stays out of the way of the script. At one point Jobs gripes that, “it’s like five minutes before every launch everyone goes to the bar and then tells me what they really think of me.” However, a self-aware gag doesn’t counteract a flaw in the film that’s even more crucial than its inherent lack of drama. It’s one thing for the film to shuffle around or ignore entirely events from Jobs’s fairly well-documented life story for the sake of drama: If filmmakers couldn’t fold, spindle, and mutilate the historical record then the biopic genre would be extinct. But the film spends all its energy spinning around Jobs and the conflicts seeded by his prickly persona, hoping to see his reflection in everyone else’s aggravated faces. By only parachuting us into his life for a few minutes at a time (a couple flashbacks aside), and then quickly tying it all up with a non-revelatory insight about his orphan past, the window of opportunity for understanding Jobs is dramatically limited.
What Steve Jobs leaves us with isn’t a genius or even a particularly innovative business manager. One after the other, aggrieved former colleagues or family come for some kind of reconciliation or passive-aggressive score-settling, only to be hit with the paranoid, megalomaniacal verbal assaults Sculley calls the “Steve Jobs revenge machine”. On the surface this looks like an attempt to puncture the bubble of Jobs’s self-created genius mystique and show his seedy underbelly. But the film’s heart isn’t in it. Each time, Jobs gets the upper hand. When Wozniak finally abandons his jolly calm to demand of Jobs what he actually does (since Jobs couldn’t program or design), Jobs blithely responds, “I’m the conductor”, shutting down a perfectly legitimate question. In a later scene when Hertzfeld admits to paying Lisa’s college tuition after Jobs refused to out of spite, somehow Hertzfeld is presented as a meddling loser instead of concerned friend.
Like all of the socially maladroit male geniuses on television these days, we’re supposed to take Jobs’s finicky attitudes and personal attacks as the price of admission for watching a superior mind at work and revel in his putdowns of lesser beings. There is no evidence here of the real Jobs’s penchant for not just cruelty but childish screaming tantrums and outright sadism when he thought somebody was thwarting him. Well before the unctuous insincerity of the last act’s family rapprochement, we are simply supposed to stand back in awe at the great bully who always has his way in everything. One can almost imagine this film recast as a Silicon Valley sitcom about a temperamental tech boss who’s always flying off at the handle, only to have his (not too) sassy female sidekick roll her eyes and sigh “Oh, Steve!”
When Wozniak vents in frustration, “It’s not binary! You can be decent and gifted at the same time,” Jobs ignores him. The film does, too.