2015, R, 122 min. Directed by Danny Boyle. Starring Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Seth Rogen, Jeff Daniels, Michael Stuhlbarg, Katherine Waterston.
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., Oct. 16, 2015
Aaron Sorkin writes the sickest burns. “You can’t handle the truth” doesn’t even make his Top 10 personal best. (See instead: The West Wing’s Jed Bartlet grinding a cigarette on the floor of the National Cathedral.) Sorkin has built a career – or a brand, if you’re feeling less charitable – on righteous characters laying rhetorical waste. When he really gets cooking, you could catch a contact high from so much cutting down to size. And in this fictionalized portrait of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, Sorkin has engineered the perfect conduit for his oratorical lashings: a visionary and a jerk, not unlike the last tech giant he tackled, to the tune of an Oscar: Mark Zuckerberg in 2010’s The Social Network.
Working from Walter Isaacson’s authorized biography of Jobs and his own legwork – he’s spoken in interviews about getting first-person accounts from Jobs’ daughter and his former boss, two fraught relationships that drive the narrative – Sorkin smashes the cradle-to-grave biopic mold with Steve Jobs. R.I.P., I guess. It’s called a mold for a reason.
Structurally, Steve Jobs is closer to a play (makes sense: Sorkin started out in theatre). Three acts unfold, each set in a fixed time and place, featuring the same finite cast – all somersaultingly excellent – sweating out a ticking clock. The contained acts revolve around the frantic minutes leading up to a product launch: 1984’s first Macintosh (a financial failure that led to Jobs’ ousting from Apple), 1988’s NeXT computer (another flop, but it opened the door back into Apple), and 1998’s iMac (that one stuck the landing but good). As Jobs (Fassbender, towering) preps for his next presentation in front of a massive audience of shareholders, adoring fans, and more than a few voodoo-doll holders with tack pins poised, he spars backstage with a small satellite of people who are all dissatisfied with him for one reason or another.
Some of them are family, some of them are co-workers. For Sorkin, especially in his television projects, the two concepts have been interchangeable. Steve Jobs trawls the notion of a workplace family – Jobs’ right hand and closest confidante Joanna Hoffman (Winslet) is the “work wife,” Apple CEO John Sculley (Daniels) self-identifies as a father figure, and Jobs’ fellow Apple co-founder and computing pioneer Steve Wozniak (Rogen) he calls “brother,” even as the two butt heads over Jobs’ brusque management style. (“You can be decent and gifted at the same time,” Woz snaps at him. “It’s not binary.”) The film cannily counterpoises that “family” dynamic with his own private turmoil over being adopted and with the flesh-and-blood daughter, Lisa (played in the three different eras by Ripley Sobo, Makenzie Moss, and Perla Haney-Jardine), who Jobs initially denies fathering. The gadgetry may be the film’s framework, but it’s the chewing over damaged families that fills its rooms.
Director Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire) wasn’t the first choice for the material (consult the Sony Hack transcript … or don’t). Turns out he was a smart one, anyway. Boyle’s roaming camera and brisk staging injects a lot of energy into what is essentially two hours of walking and talking, while his habitual drift into too-slickness actually works here in complement with the script’s theatricality. That said, there were times I longed for him to turn down the volume (literally); Daniel Pemberton’s otherwise-excellent score overpowers some of the dialogue, and the way it’s used as a bridge between the film’s smattering of flashbacks reduces moments of epiphany to movie-trailer trope.
Oh, but those are minor infractions in a serious film that is seriously so much fun. That’s an adjective nowadays saved for films with “fast,” “furious,” and maybe a Roman numeral in its title. Cineastes should reclaim the word. Because what could be more fun for moviegoers, more exhilarating, than to watch a bunch of talented people at the top of their craft? To be presented a film that is both challenging and entertaining? That shouldn’t be binary, either.