Steve Jobs was a brilliant designer and a difficult person. He was a free-thinking creative and a prickly perfectionist. He was partly responsible for some amazing technological innovations and an often unrepentant jerk. This is not only the conventional wisdom about the man who co-founded Apple Computers. This is the sum total of insight Steve Jobs, a handsome but empty Hollywood prestige picture, brings to the table. Here was a man full of contradictions, who oversaw the creation of the Macintosh computer and the iPod, and yet in the process of being an insufferable genius got fired, and then rehired, by the company he helped create. A mystique about him as a cool figure, a Silicon Valley guru with crossover appeal lingers. All that is interesting, but the film breaks down the story into obvious binaries – work and family, art and commerce, intellect and empathy. It’s overwritten, obvious, and thinly developed.
At least it’s not a conventional biopic like 2013’s Ashton Kutcher-starring Jobs, which blandly recounted the broad strokes of his life. Aaron Sorkin has written a predictably wordy script rather thrillingly, at least in theory, structured around three product launches: the 1984 Mac computer, the 1988 NeXT cube, and the 1998 iMac. Each represents a phase of Jobs at Apple. The first shows us the man at his early peak, right before he sets in motion the events that’ll lead to his dismissal. Next, we see Jobs in exile, struggling to make a computer with enough buzz to reclaim his tech genius status in the industry and the media. Lastly, we see his triumphant return, launching the product line that eventually leads to the iPod and iPad. Michael Fassbender, in a deftly chatty but mostly unconvincing performance, plays Jobs as a man always performing, dominating a room with his outsized expectations, willing reality to distort to his desires.
Each segment takes place backstage before a press and shareholders event, Jobs pacing, contemplating his speech, and focusing on last minute details. Each time, the same sets of characters run up to engage him in conversations that are exclusively variations on the same exact themes. Jobs’s assistant Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet in a slippery accent) runs behind him fixing problems and treating him with tough maternal concern. Apple CEO John Sculley (Jeff Daniels) shows paternal interest, sagely contemplating his colleague’s flaws before erupting in frustration. An engineer (Michael Stuhlbarg) wants Jobs to go easier on him. Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen) wants more public recognition for his department’s contributions. And Job’s estranged ex-girlfriend (Katherine Waterson) and their daughter he refuses to acknowledge (as a teen, Perla Haney-Jardine, pre-teen, Ripley Sobo, and at first little Makenzie Moss) have emotional appeals.
It sure is convenient they all showed up to have similar arguments before these three different big moments, and it’s tedious to watch the repetitions develop. (The best scenes break out of the structure in flashbacks, like a dramatic board meeting backlit by a rainstorm, and an early argument in the company’s garage origins.) I don’t care one bit if the movie’s conceit is true to the real events or real people involved. I only care that it doesn’t work emotionally or dramatically to reduce everyone down to a monotonous need expressed repeatedly and in too-similar ways. Sorkin’s vision of Jobs is a surface level expression of deep contradictions, juxtaposing him through lengthy walk-and-talk dialogue with characters representing differences in business, technology, or family, and watching him clash with them to get his own way. There are small fluctuations in his personality, but by the ending, with a swell of music, slow-mo, twinkling lights, and meaningful glances, I wasn’t entirely convinced he arrived at new understanding about himself any more than we had a better understanding about him than we had in the first five minutes.
This Jobs is very much a Sorkin figure. He’s whip smart and successful in his chosen profession, able to speak fluently and elegantly about his ideas (like The American President, The West Wing, and so on). He’s a distant prodigy who wants to help people in the abstract, but has difficulties in interpersonal relationships, and who thinks he can fill a hole in his heart with impressive invention (like Zuckerberg in the brilliant Social Network). The man’s been shoehorned into Sorkin’s old tricks without the overarching narrative interest or emotional specificity to excuse such tired troubled-man-of-greatness tropes. The movie says a lot, pages upon pages of monologues and diatribes spoken well by a talented cast. But for all the metaphors and cute turns of phrase, they’re really not saying much at all. What more do we know about who these characters are, or what they feel, or what they mean to their industry or to our times? Not much.
Director Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, 28 Days Later, Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours), one of our most reliably visually eclectic and propulsive filmmakers, leaves most of the pyrotechnics to the screenplay’s verbal loop-de-loops. But he, with cinematographer Alwin Küchler, makes sure to indulge his interest in color and texture – lingering on a table with brightly colored notes reflected in Jobs’s glasses, setting a confrontation in a cavernous room crowded with overturned chairs, or throwing faded archival footage illustrating a metaphor on a blank wall behind a character. He has sharp blocking and canted angles cut together with pep from editor Elliot Graham. But there’s none of Boyle’s usual constant forward movement, excitement, dread. It’s curiously inert: a somnambulant approach that matches the strained profundity of the overall picture. Steve Jobs is at least trying to be something different, but it’s still the sort of movie that ends its big emotional climax with a man looking at his daughter’s Walkman and promising to invent a way to put 1,000 songs in her pocket. The movie is too clumsy and obvious for its own good.