“I’m going to put a 1000 songs in your pocket.”
When Michael Fassbender’s titular character utters this line late into the running time of Steve Jobs it takes you a second to register what he’s talking about. When you do however you don’t feel or think anything substantial. There is no marveling at the man’s ferocious imagination. Nothing is elucidated about his life’s work.
This is a problem that plagues the entirety of the biopic by Oscar-winning director Danny Boyle and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin. Working together, the two men craft a lively, well-acted look at the digital revolutionary Steve Jobs, yet it’s more of a skeleton of the man than something substantial and full-blooded. The film is missing real insight into the ramifications of his technological and social impact. Charting out a narrative through three critical product launches, Steve Jobs shows us what Jobs spearheaded during his career’s early and mid-stages, but it forgets to tell us why any of it matters.
Steve Jobs takes your prototypical three act structure and tries to do something different. Eschewing traditional biopic formula, it instead follows Jobs at three critical points in his career: the launching of the Apple Macintosh in ’84, the reveal of NeXT computer in ’88, and finally the introduction of the iMac in ’98. These acts are each tied together with a montage that bridges the intervening years, and each product launch comes complete with Jobs dealing with professional aspirations and personal passions.
Surrounding Fassbender’s Jobs, we find Kate Winslet’s Joanna Hoffman, Apple’s chief marketing executive and Jobs’ only clear confidant. Hoffman is positioned as Jobs’ moral compass, the sole figure capable of penetrating his shield of vitriol and megalomania. Always the powerhouse actress, Winslet makes the most out of a slim part, elegantly suggesting Hoffman’s conflicted feelings about her boss’s difficult yet magnetic persona.
Seth Rogen’s burly and bearded Steve Wozniak is another fixture who repeatedly appears in the film’s different stages. Imbuing his performance with a deep, heavy sadness, Rogen’s performance breaks new ground for the actor. His Wozniak is the bruised heart of the film, continually striving to get Jobs to acknowledge that, like Rome, Apple wasn’t built in a day and it wasn’t built by one person.
If there is a problem with Rogen’s work it is not with the actor as much as it is with Sorkin’s script. Although Wozniak is given ample screentime, he remains largely unchanged throughout the story. Individual moments certainly connect, with the best being his breathless remonstrance of Jobs in an orchestra pit, but a feeling of staged repetition and inertia sets in by the film’s third act, which features the character again pleading with Jobs to be a better man.
Jobs must also contend with Chrisann Brenann (Katherine Waterston), a former girlfriend who claims that Jobs is the father of her young daughter Lisa – which he adamantly denies. The rancor between Jobs and Brenann helps illustrate Jobs’ dysfunctional and complex personal life and comes to dominate much of the film’s thematic core. While not incredibly interesting, it also isn’t necessarily a problem by itself; that is, until Sorkin and Boyle fail to reflect Jobs dysfunction in his work, which gives the film a slight, almost meaningless air.
At certain points, it feels as if Boyle was entirely cognizant of this and was compelled to overcompensate. The film is over-directed, festooned with needless aesthetic touches. Some examples are when words and images that Jobs is discussing backstage are seen projected on the auditorium’s walls and floors, and an outrageously edited scene where Fassbender’s Jobs clashes with Jeff Daniel’s doomed John Sculley.
All of this evokes bad memories of Boyle’s 2010 effort, 127 Hours, another film where the director seemed intent on burying the material underneath gimmicks. In Steve Jobs these flourishes add nothing to the proceedings. More successful is the score by Daniel Pemberton, which subtlety contributes to the film’s segmented structure and adds a needed psychological edge.
Adapting the life story of an iconic figure can’t be easy, and one can appreciate the way in which Boyle and Co. attempt to change the game with Steve Jobs. Yet, if there is something shared by more successful biopics is that they find a way to make their subject both unique and common at the same time. Often, this is accomplished through reflection, where the nature of a biographical subject’s work becomes imbued with the nature of the subject’s flawed humanity. Scorsese understood this when he made 1980’s Raging Bull. He turned the boxing ring into arena of sexual psychodrama, a place where the common fears and anxieties of the film’s protagonist, Jake La Motta, could be explored in all their grisly and beautiful detail.
Aaron Sorkin also understood it when he penned 2010’s Oscar-winning The Social Network. The scribe was able to transpose Mark Zuckerberg’s deeply flawed humanity onto the very ethos of Facebook. His script exposed the contradictions of both man and digital creation, and how the desire for love is something undermined by the need for control. While not a perfect film, the ending of The Social Network brilliantly ties together those themes. Denying Zuckerberg catharsis, it also leaves him adrift, repeatedly refreshing his computer screen and grasping at questions that will never be definitively answered.
Steve Jobs possesses a modicum of this erudite scripting. Sorkin impressively details Jobs’ quirks and traits, like: his rabid attention to detail, boundless intelligence, rapier wit and visionary attitude. He has the perfect vessel too in Michael Fassbender, who tears into Sorkin’s distinctive dialogue like a fat man at a discounted buffet, propeling scenes along with a rapid-fire cadence.
For as impressive as Sorkin’s script is on the surface, that’s about all it is. The film includes some subtextual weight, linking Jobs’ desire for end-to-end control to his traumatic childhood. It still refuses to clarify why the computer is best suited to explore the types of personality traits we see in the film. It declines parsing what the rise of personal computing says about humanity. The script brings its subject matter to a cathartic end that feels muted because we don’t understand the thematic correlation between man and machine, neither do we see or understand Jobs’ personal transformation. We know that he is a guy who wants to put 1,000 songs in our pockets. But is that enough? Probably not for a man seen as synonymous with his products and who helped create the very nature of our modern age.