[This is a re-post of my review from the 2015 Telluride Film Festival; Steve Jobs opens today in Los Angeles and New York and expands nationwide on October 23rd.]
Steve Jobs is a locomotive. Danny Boyle‘s biopic of the former Apple CEO is crisply directed, wonderfully acted, and beautifully edited. Aaron Sorkin‘s script is breathless, witty, urbane, but also exhausting and painfully circular. It spans 15 years, and three of Jobs’ different product launches. This train makes you feel like it’s covered a lot of ground, but by the end you realized we’ve really only traveled in circles, and stopped at the same spots multiple times. Steve Jobs is certainly good, but there’s so much here that’s great it’s a little frustrating that it isn’t great overall.
We meet Jobs (Michael Fassbender) in 1984 before his launch of the Mac, his product that simplifies the personal computer by actually reducing what the computer can do. His idea is that it’ll become more accessible to everyone through simplification. We then meet Jobs in 1988, launching his own computer company, Next, and hosting a launch demonstration at the San Francisco Orchestra—prior to even making an operating system. Both of these ventures fail, but they make Jobs a tech rock star. This makes sense because the aesthetics and presentation are the primary concerns he has for his products. Jobs presents ideas and surfaces very well. In 1998, when the tech rock star reunites with the band that made him famous, Apple, the world has finally caught up to Jobs: it wants a simpler computer that looks cool and simply gets them on the Internet. The iMac was just that, purchased by millions as many household’s first computer. And thus began Jobs’ greatest run of innovative success.
So, in a way, Jobs did indeed travel around in a circle. And he indeed did step out of the train and call the landscape new. And it was. There is definitely something interesting that Sorkin and Boyle’s film does in exploring how time passed and Jobs’ innovations never pivoted and adapted to it, but instead he remained steadfast about aesthetics and accessibility. And eventually, time does catch up and land where it was always desired for Jobs.
Sorkin’s decision to center a huge story into a compact space of a single day in each year of those launches is certainly an intriguing approach to reshaping the biopic structure. However, there is a letdown when you begin to realize the repetition of the story arc of the characters. There are 15 years, three products, and seven main characters in Steve Jobs, but they can all be written about similarly because each time a character appears in Steve Jobs—after they dance about everything that might go wrong with each product demo— they then step back into an echo chamber of grievances.
For example, marketing expert Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet) steadfastly sticks by Jobs’ side throughout the entire film, and she and Jobs do have a great rapport—but every time the doomsday dialogue about the product launch wraps up, she only has one thing on her mind: she wants Jobs to mend things with his daughter. How Jobs reacts to this makes it seem like his daughter is never mentioned in his life, nor ever present until moments before he steps on stage to try and change the world with tech accessibility.
Similar to Joanna, the rest of the characters in Steve Jobs similarly have one goal that they bring up minutes before each of Jobs’ product launches. Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), the coding architect of the first great consumer computer, the Apple II, gets into a heated argument with Jobs in each section of the film (again, minutes before each launch) where he asks Jobs to acknowledge the great work of the team behind Apple II and how it got Jobs where he is today. John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), the original Apple CEO, always meets up with Jobs before each launch to ask Jobs whether or not being adopted made him shun and not trust others. Jobs takes 15 years to give a little nugget of an answer to each of these meetings, as if he’s aware that Sculley will pop up to ask this adoption question like clockwork and that he can dramatically leave a trail of intriguing breadcrumbs. And the mother of his child, Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston) always makes her way into the dressing room before these product launches to ask for more money, she is demeaned and humiliated by Jobs, but then is told that more money will hit her account.
The only character who get to have a little bit of growth in what they want from Jobs is software engineer Andy Hurtzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg), but that’s only because he’s able to pivot toward Joanna’s ultimate last-minute call for Jobs to step and become a father. Hurtzfeld goes from trying not to be fired by Jobs to trying to be a better estranged father than Jobs.
The repetition of each character’s motives to make Jobs a better person by being more selfless and aware of others is unfortunately done with one chess piece for each player. At one point Jobs remarks, “it seems like five minutes before every launch, everyone gets drunk and decides to air their grievances.” It’s true. And the circle gets a little tiring, and eventually takes us to an unearned ending. Sorkin, Fassbender and Boyle spend so much time building a charismatic, brilliant, but incredibly hurtful monster it feels false to end where it does. Sorkin’s script for The Social Network left Mark Zuckerberg being called an asshole, and Jobs wants you to believe that he’s an asshole who’s suddenly an angel by film’s end.
However, the power dynamics present before each launch are fascinating.Everything leading up to the repeated grievances is fantastically written and performed. It’s unfortunate that after breathtakingly taking us through product concerns—which are acted like boxing matches—that they are all segues to the exact same personal arguments. Winslet, Rogen, Daniels, Stuhlbarg and Waterston all get in a few great jabs and body blows against Jobs. And Fassbender beautifully plays Jobs as someone who has the stamina and focus to absorb these blows and make it to the end of the round victorious.
Boyle does implement a few great aesthetic choices to tie together the years in between each launch. For instance, he inserts colorful glitches and harsh noise as we catch up in years to Jobs’ (lacking) Next system. And the brief flashback scenes—that quietly revisit Jobs, Wozniak, and Sculley in moments when they truly inspired one another—are shot with a reverence for the big things that come from small beginnings. But Sorkin isn’t able to present each character as a character. Rather, they are a chorus of people who’ve been waiting for years to speak up about their one big issue with Jobs. And they all choose to do it at the exact same time. And in the exact same way. In this manner, Steve Jobs is a dreamy pop song that repeats the chorus too often. But it sure does play a mean hook.