Danny Boyle's Steve Jobs is much more like a play than a movie. And this, above all, is why it is disappointing. It's so easy to see that the screen has been limited to the conventions of a stage, with claustrophobic results. You keep wanting the camera to do more, to break out of its theatrical confines, but it almost never does. As a consequence, Steve Jobs has no cinematic moments, no movie magic. Recall that scene in Boyle's wonderful 28 Days Later where four survivors of the zombie apocalypse are heading down a desolate highway in a black cab. As they journey to the place that claims to have a cure for the infection, we hear Gabriel Fauré's numinous "In Paradisum." The grim movement, the otherworldly music, the empty road, the danger surrounding these vulnerable humans—all of this is magical because it captures the kind of world the characters are in. Not a single word needs to be uttered. The mood says everything. Nothing like this is found in the entire two hours of Steve Jobs. Instead, the work is dominated by Aaron Sorkin's script, which is packed with punchy lines.
Jobs is very talky. No one ever shuts up and provides a space with much-needed silence. Everything has to be filled with words, and words, and more words. It's as if Sorkin cannot trust an actor to communicate a feeling nonverbally. If it is not spelled out, we might miss something important, some key development. This kind of overwriting is great for the actors. Which is why Michael Fassbender does an excellent job of playing Sorkin's Steve Jobs. The script gives him lots of material to show his chops. But a real film does not need so much acting. Indeed, the less an actor says, the better. Fassbender is never given time to stop, sink into his character, and find that something that makes Jobs worth examining to begin with.
The film has three acts. Each is set moments before Jobs launches one of his products. The first is in 1984 (Macintosh), the second in 1988 (NeXT's black box), the last in 1998 (iMac). This period marks Jobs's first peak, beginning with Ridley Scott's "groundbreaking" Orwellian Macintosh TV commercial, Jobs's years in the wilderness after he leaves or is fired from the company he cofounded, and his return to power and glory with the "Think different" ad campaign.
The story involves six principal people in this area of his short life (he died in 2011 at the age of 56). There is Jobs's marketing executive and confidant, Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet); his first business partner, Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen); his favorite programming genius, Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg); the CEO who fired or did not fire Jobs in 1985, John Sculley (Jeff Daniels); the mopey mother of Jobs's first child, Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston); and his first child, Lisa Brennan-Jobs (played by three actresses).
These characters orbit the world-famous entrepreneur in the backstage of his product launches. Just before he steps on the stage to reveal the next big thing for humankind, he has to confront these mere mortals and justify why he is so demanding, so determined, so cold, so closed, so self-centered, so impatient with everyone, so right all of the time, so brilliant, so loved, so hated, so historical, so artistic, so petty, so impossible. The world is a stage that's only big enough for one Jobs.
All of these encounters and the constant conversations, however, go nowhere and reveal little of any value about Jobs, his society, or his times. Despite dealing with a man who was seen by many (himself especially) as an Einstein-caliber genius, the film lacks a big picture. All that happens is a rich man falls and rises and, in the end, gets a little closer to his daughter. I'd almost rather watch a Mac commercial
Before I end this review, I need to say a few words about the one interesting facet of this generally uninteresting film: the complete absence of Jobs's wife, Laurene Powell Jobs, and their three children. Why exclude them? I think because they don't contribute to his myth, while his out-of-wedlock daughter, Lisa, does. There are two sides to the Jobs mythos: the prophet and the asshole. These parts, however, are not in conflict; they complement and reinforce each other.
The mutualism of the two myths, I must admit, is something I failed to fully appreciate in my favorable review of the super-damning documentary Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine, which was released late this summer. I actually (and even naively) thought the hard fact that Jobs was an asshole contradicted and even diminished the mythical power of Jobs-the-prophet. But in fact, Jobs-the-asshole also has considerable and even positive mythic power.
Jobs was mean to poor little Lisa, he said awful things to her, he repeatedly shamed her mother and forced them into the welfare line while he was worth millions. Though all of this is quite true, it is still the stuff of legend. And there is a part of us that strongly believes that shit in this world does not get done without big assholes to do it. What I should have attacked in my last review is not Jobs's world-class assholisms but the fact that the world believes it needs them.