After much sturm and drang getting it to the big screen, the Aaron Sorkin-penned biopic Steve Jobs finally in wide release, where it face-planted for reasons ranging from “Michael Fassbender isn’t a star” to “everyone just spent their money on The Martian and they’re done with movies for the month”. (That second one has a lot more to do with it than anything else.) It’s too bad Steve Jobs was ever taken out of the arthouse, its natural habitat, because it’s actually a really good movie that doesn’t deserve to be remembered as a failure just because general audiences weren’t into it. It’s an excellent character drama featuring stellar performances from Fassbender and Kate Winslet, and if Aaron Sorkin seems like the kind of guy who imagines he’s the besieged lord of the castle of good taste, well. It doesn’t make his dialogue any less entertaining.
Steve Jobs follows a three-act structure so clearly defined that this film could easily be translated to a stage performance. The smallness of space in the film adds to the stagey-ness of the story, as most of the film takes place in hallways and square rooms. This is not the most visually engaging film and director Danny Boyle works hard to overcome the physical limits of Sorkin’s script. He project images on walls behind characters, he uses tracking shots to keep the camera moving between characters during dialogue exchanges, and finally, he gives up and cuts to interstitial scenes happening in separate locations altogether. There are only so many times you can film in a hallway before we’re sick of looking at hallways.
The film opens in 1984 as Steve Jobs (Fassbender) is about to go on stage to unveil the first Macintosh computer. Each act of Steve Jobs occurs in the final minutes before a product launch—act two is 1988 and Jobs’s non-Apple NeXT project, and act three is 1998 and the launch of the iMac. During each period Jobs is visited by the same group of people: Apple CEO John Sculley (Jeff Daniels); Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen); the mother of Jobs’s first child, Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston, Inherent Vice); and Lisa, Jobs’s daughter, played by a succession of young actresses. Throughout it all, Jobs is shadowed by Apple marketing chief Joanna Hoffman (Winslet). The result is a very repetitive story, like a kind of Computer Carol: Ghosts of Circuit Boards Past, Present, and Future.
So it’s a good thing that Sorkin’s dialogue is as sharp as ever. Boyle does everything he can to keep Steve Jobs from buckling under the weight of the story structure Sorkin gave him, but in the end, the film lives and dies by the dialogue. The cast is well up to the challenge. Fassbender is incredible as Jobs—he doesn’t look anything like him, but he fully embodies a temperamental genius who thinks years ahead of everyone else. Winslet is also a stand out as preternaturally patient Joanna, the only person who seems able to stand Jobs for longer than five minutes at a time. And Daniels just fucking delivers, like he always does, well used to Sorkinisms thanks to his time on The Newsroom. This is an actor’s piece, and Fassbender, Winslet, and Daniels turn it into a showcase.
Though characters—particularly Steve Wozniak—question Jobs’s actual contribution at Apple, since he doesn’t engineer, code, or build anything, the film makes it clear that Jobs’s contribution is his innovation. Everyone is stuck on computers as the tools of hobbyists, but he sees them as vital necessities to day-to-day life. The real Steve Jobs was certainly an innovator, but this does feel a little like the historical revision of The Newsroom, where the benefit of hindsight allows Sorkin to write to the eventual outcome, making Jobs not just an innovator but a prophet.
It’s a little obnoxious, but Fassbender is so convincing as a great-minded man beleaguered by small-minded adversaries that it works in spite of Sorkin. The scene in which Jobs calls Apple’s failed PDA a “little box of garbage” is laugh-out-loud funny. Sorkin tries to make the whole thing about the coming of the iPhone, but Fassbender sells it as Jobs loathing something he judges to be inelegant, and every time he says “little box of garbage” is funnier than the last. Fassbender clearly relishes playing an unmitigated asshole. Steve Jobs is not flawless, literally boxed in as it is by the setting, but the acting carries the film past its problems. Fassbender’s performance, especially, is a borderline masterpiece.