“Steve Jobs” might be a Danny Boyle film but it’s an Aaron Sorkin joint. “Because we have forty-five seconds,” says John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), Apple CEO, to Jobs (Michael Fassbender), the technological messiah, “I’ll use it to ask a question.” That might as well be Sorkin’s mission statement. He abhors dead air, adores loquaciousness and therefore transforms Steve Jobs, played full steam by ahead by Fassbender, into a foul-mouthed egotist who will not shut up, and “Steve Jobs” into a cinematic locomotive running on verbiage rather than coal. Though Boyle tricks up the presentation, switching from 16mm to 35mm to digital to track the movie’s changing eras, all that feels like window dressing weighed against the writing. Even so, for all the screenplay’s entertainingly florid language and blow-your-hair-back screeds, it is never actually revelatory, failing to unearth the inner self of its titular character. We may never leave his orbit, yet he still seems remote, the guru and god we see in hagiographic adverts, nothing more.
That might have been fine had Sorkin’s intent been to wrestle with our own ideas of regular, screwed-up, asshole-ish men viewed as gods and the trouble this elicits. But then, the general public is left out of “Steve Jobs”. This is his story, though not a from-the-ground-up linear telling of it, as Sorkin forgoes elementary exposition and trite A Ha! Moments (Jobs bites apple; gets that faraway look in his eyes). Instead he imagines his – er, Boyle’s – movie in three acts, focusing on a triad of product launches spread across fourteen years. This makes “Steve Jobs” less a biopic and more like “Birdman”, a backstage drama, and that suggests an examination of the private person rather than the public one, and how the two differ. After all, we never see the product launches; we merely see Jobs sniping with a rotating cast of cohorts in the wings.
The film begins in 1984 where Jobs will introduce the Macintosh computer at a community college in Cupertino, CA before skipping ahead to 1988 when a floundering Jobs, post-Mac failure, is set to introduce the NeXT Cube, doomed to fail, in San Francisco. It concludes in 1998 with Jobs set to launch the iMac as stage one of a worldwide takeover. His closest confidant, Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), who seems alternately enamored with his intelligence and repulsed by his seemingly non-existent human emotion, is never far from his side, trying to keep him from metaphorically running off the rails. And in each act, Jobs’ respective Ghosts of Christmas Past surface to haunt his psyche. Steve Wozniak, played with a wounded gregariousness by Seth Rogen, just wants some credit for helping achieve Apple liftoff, but Jobs is reluctant to give it. John Sculley appears as a platform for Jobs’ Daddy Issues. And then there is Lisa, the daughter Jobs refuses to admit he had with Chrisann (Katherine Waterston), an unfortunate character who Sorkin sketches less like a functioning human being than Fantine of Les Misérables.
Lisa is intended as his salvation. (She is also made to recite Sorkin-speak too, and is why all three actresses playing her at different ages - Perla Haney-Jardine, Ripley Sobo, and Makenzie Moss – deserve shout-outs, because they somehow make this finite dialogue believable that isn’t appropriate to their age still sound age-appropriate.) If Jobs can admit she’s his, he can be a Good Person, or thereabouts. But that’s where Sorkin really steps wrong. If anything, Jobs is portrayed as Lisa’s savior. They first connect via MacPaint, meaning his first foray into her world is actually her first foray into his world; she meets him on his terms, and that never fundamentally changes, as he pledges to her near the end that he will create a device to put a thousand songs in her pocket. Even in these moments of supposed father/daughter connection, the screenplay can’t help but bring it back down to the things Jobs made.
“What you make isn't supposed to be the best part of you,” says Joanna. “When you're a father, that’s what’s supposed to be the best part of you.” Winslet delivers that line with maximum earnestness but the movie, never mind Jobs himself, doesn’t really believe it. Heck, in the end, Joanna might not even believe it. Ahead of the concluding sequence she tells him to go make “a dent in the universe”, meaning even the only person willing to stand up to him finally comes around and bows down to the aura of his eminence.
The film might be based on Walter Isaacson’s book but Sorkin has gone on record as saying the majority of this material sprung from his own imagination, which is fine. I strongly believe that films about real people don't necessarily need to stick to the facts to capture their essence anyway. The issue, however, is that Sorkin’s mind’s eye does not really stretch beyond the synoptic gospels of Steve Jobs. He co-founded Apple, he invented that phone you turned off right before the movie started and he was both an asshole and a genius.
Except in “Steve Jobs” he comes fully formed as a genius and stays that way. There is no building to his genius; there is no declaring him a genius and then unpacking what made him one; he just is. Sorkin doesn’t elevate him to myth so much as merely confirm his pre-movie mythical status. For all its posturing as a backstage drama it remains firmly center stage, beholden to an ideal. The closing shot finds Steve Jobs outfit in that familiar ensemble of black turtleneck and dad jeans, which, given the white light in which Boyle bathes him, might as well be his holy tunic.