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“Computers aren’t art,” bellows Woz.
“Fuck you,” retorts a hostile Jobs.
Eventually, Steve Jobs won this argument, but in the moment, Jobs (Michael Fassbender) and Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen) aggressively disagree in a garage over the creative potential and purpose of home computing. Jobs may have likely been a pain in the ass, a bully, a Machiavellian prince of the modern age, but man did he get to put his name on some important technology. Steve Jobs, the new production from Aaron Sorkin and Danny Boyle, purports that Jobs’ greatness was inherently at odds with his bad-guy qualities, and damned if it doesn’t make for some soapy theatrics. Steve Jobs subverts the biopic genre by approaching it as a whip-smart play told in three acts, which opts not to glorify its lead subject. In lieu of delicacy, the Jobs of this film is a real bastard, which makes Steve Jobs all the better. Devils usually make for more salacious stories than saints, after all. Just look at The Social Network.
1984, Cupertino, California. Jobs is about to reveal his game-changing Macintosh computer to a tech-hungry public. 1988, San Francisco. After being ousted from Apple Computers, Jobs readies himself to premiere his NeXT computer. In 1998, Jobs prepares to debut his soon-to-be very popular turquoise iMac. These are the three stages of Steve Jobs. Each event draws people in Jobs’ life out of the woodwork. People like his old high school girlfriend Chrisann (Katherine Waterston) and his daughter Lisa (multiple actresses over the years), Jobs’ former colleague and friend Wozniak, Apple CEO John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), Macintosh computer scientist Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg), and Jobs’ head of marketing/Jobs handler Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet, a perfect necessity for focusing the story).
Jobs barks orders, has temper tantrums, and gets all the very finest in witty rejoinders courtesy of an Aaron Sorkin screenplay in great form. Steve Jobs is a Sorkin project for sure, and his voice carries the film. It’s the back-hallway shenanigans, circuitous and repetitive words, the half-complete thoughts that only get finished when the timing’s right and some incredible punchlines that mark Jobs. It’s theater about hot-headed men, and Sorkin’s on point here. Jobs threatens Hertzfeld with public humiliation over a technical snafu and liberally employs gun and bullet metaphors. Jobs condescends to Wozniak over and over, deriding the Apple II and even Wozniak’s strange watch choices. He casually comments on Hoffman’s Polish heritage like she’s some sort of colorful émigré, when in fact she’s the only person that can calm the Apple beast.
At one point Jobs argues that 2001: A Space Odyssey made computers terrifying, and it’s why he wants the Apple to say hello, and Hoffman replies that Dave did in fact say hello and that red-eyed computer still scared the hell out of her. This dialogue is Sorkin in his best and most complicated form. It speaks to Clarke’s prophetic views on electronic computing, it shows the film’s zippy hard-nosed speaking patterns, and above all, it’s just well delivered and funny. Steve Jobs’ dialogue makes the man, and Sorkin’s lines make for delicious, unreal, literate, referential ratatat.
But that dialogue is nothing without a game cast, and everyone comes ready. Fassbender’s interpretation of Jobs is of a spry, scary, charismatic man. He’s the kind of person that sends chills down people’s spines, out of fear and amazement alike. It’s the kind of bad-behavior performance an actor can sink their teeth into, and Fassbender takes some great big bites. This Jobs could probably corral troops, but not before making his employees consider cyanide. It’s the best kind of biographical performance: one with warts and all. However, the quiet praise should go to Winslet’s Joanna Hoffman. She’s his heart in a lock box that Steve refuses to let leave his side. She’s battered emotionally, an accomplice at times as well, but she manages to get last words and they’re usually choice.
Rogen gives Steve Wozniak an aching earnestness, and Stuhlbarg’s forlorn Hertzfeld shows a man at odds with the two sides of Steve Jobs. Danny Boyle picks up fast and puts on a lively show, with mixed coverage, crazy camera angles, and a sensitively electronic score. Steve Jobs is ridiculously entertaining, that’s for certain.
But what keeps Steve Jobs from greatness is two-fold: the film’s inability to completely sell the obvious innovation of Jobs and company’s work, and last-minute lessons in sentimental country that’ll make you go blech. The writing, pacing, and kinetic ambience of the entire endeavor keeps things lively, but one can’t help but get a bad taste in their mouth in the end. For one, the legacy of Apple’s work, the true power and innovation of the man, feels like little more than an extended setup for hardball dialogue. Yeah, yeah, the Macintosh was huge, and of course tense conversations likely arose from it, but it meant something, right? This isn’t asking for an apology for Jobs’ harsh style, but there’s still little reason to deny the man as having been on the front lines of radically altering communications in the last quarter century.
Also, this treads on spoiler territory, but the last act (the ending in particular) betrays the bitter delights of the prior 100 minutes. Jobs gets put on trial throughout the movie, but his accomplishments give him a sort of hedged pass, a “that’s just who he was” shrug. It’s less meaningful than what the complicated entrepreneur brought to his life. Perhaps the Walter Isaacson book has that moral difficulty better in mind (the book’s been sitting on my shelf, so please tell me).
Still, the story of Jobs gets appropriate, feistily written material, and it makes you loathe and love the man, the only way it should be. How about this: For a movie about a technological innovator, Steve Jobs is way more fun than The Social Network, even as that film is undoubtedly better. Steve Jobs doesn’t reach the zeitgeisty highs of Sorkin’s other tech-minded film, but goodness is everyone on board and running smoothly.