A screenplay in a movie’s clothing, Steve Jobs is undeniably an Aaron Sorkin film. Sure, director Danny Boyle is allowed to paint the walls and Michael Fassbender (as Jobs) brings his usual laser-like focus, but this never comes alive as a living, breathing motion picture. Dialogue-driven, suffocatingly structured and thematically direct, Steve Jobs remains on the page, and is quite happy there.
Keep in mind I like Sorkin’s work, particularly The Social Network, his tech-oriented collaboration with David Fincher. Yet there the witty, rat-a-tat repartee was a more natural match for Jesse Eisenberg’s tightly wound, deeply insecure Mark Zuckerberg. As a result, the movie worked as a character study better than it did as a time capsule of technological revolution. Steve Jobs means to do the same – it’s less interested in the Apple guru’s professional innovations than it is in his estranged relationship with his daughter – yet the balance between writerly flair and human drama is off.
Part of this has to do with the structure. There are three main sections to Steve Jobs, each of which comprises the hour or so before Jobs goes on stage for a particularly momentous product launch. (The movie begins in 1984 with the Macintosh.) In the minutes before the curtain rises, Jobs’ marketing executive (Kate Winslet) tries to prep him for the presentation, even as he receives impromptu visits from the various VIPs in his life: Apple CEO John Sculley (Jeff Daniels); co-founder Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen); Macintosh designer Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg); and Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston), the mother of the daughter whom Jobs would take years to admit was his.
The balance between writerly flair and human drama is off.
The neatnik in me at first admired this tidy structural device, but by the third section — as Jobs is about to announce the iMac in 1998 — it became tedious and contrived. Overall, the movie is too reminiscent of Sorkin’s television drama The West Wing, with familiar characters walking similar halls having variations on the same conversations.
That’s not fair to The West Wing, a series I enjoyed as an entertaining, lightly fictionalized op-ed piece. Yet as much as we came to know Martin Sheen’s President Bartlet, he and the other characters on the show always registered first and foremost as mouthpieces – vessels for Sorkin’s mellifluous words.
The supporting characters in Steve Jobs function in the same way, and it’s fun to watch under-sung talents like Stuhlbarg and Daniels (and Rogen, at least for this type of material) deliver snappy dialogue with verve and exactitude. Yet when it comes to Jobs himself, Fassbender succumbs to the strictures of the screenplay, delivering a performance that’s technically precise yet not exactly human. His Steve Jobs isn’t quite fully a person – not even when the daughter subplot suddenly takes center stage in a last-ditch attempt to make him one. He is, rather, a computation, something spit out by an iSorkin.