If I hadn’t seen Alex Gibney’s documentary Steve Jobs: The Man Inside The Machine earlier this year, I’d probably be a little more enchanted by Danny Boyle’s Hollywoodized dramatization, Steve Jobs. Written by the quick-witted Aaron Sorkin, this take on Apple’s infamous mogul is a surprisingly brief glimpse into three major turning points in Jobs’ career, focusing on the strained relationship between a man and the child he refused to acknowledge as his own daughter. Where Gibney made us question Jobs’ ethics, and where filmmaker Joshua Michael Stern sought out to chronicle Steve’s rise to power in Jobs, Sorkin fixates on the titular character’s capacity for human emotion, boiling a jagged persona down to what should be a meaningful parental bond. This is the human side of Jobs we finally get to explore – albeit a more glitzy, crowd-pleasing take.
Steve Jobs strikes at three pivotal moments in the inventor’s career – his 1984 presentation of the Macintosh, his 1988 unveiling of Next’s black cube, and his 1998 unveiling of the iMac. We never leave any assembly venue, and all his interactions take place in the leading moments to what we remember as landmarks in Jobs’ career.
He encounters the likes of Apple CEO John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), on-and-off partner Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), estranged mother to his supposed child, Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston), and a few more affiliates, all under the astute guidance of Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet). We watch as his demeanor changes – or doesn’t change – over time, from his treatment of Lisa (played by the trio of Makenzie Moss, Ripley Sobo, and Perla Haney-Jardine), to his tumultuous conflict with John Sculley. It’s all about how Steve Jobs adapts to each hurdle, brought to life by Michael Fassbender’s transformation into the Silicon Valley God.
Yet, this is exactly the Jobs retelling you’d expect from a cast led by Michael Fassbender, a man who never truly looks the role. He’s a phenomenal actor, and possesses the commanding presence that Jobs demanded, but from the very first shot of a physically-built Fassbender attempting to hide his rugged, cut physique under a white t-shirt, immersion dissipates. The cast are mere players bringing Steve Jobs to life in a way we absolutely want to see, but only from afar, and complete with schmaltzy sentimentality that’s sweet, yet somewhat unfitting. Truth seems to become translated into an obviously plotted trajectory, just as the most crowd-pleasing efforts have compromised in the past.
Sorkin balances “Steve Jobs the monster” with “Steve Jobs the titan,” clearly striking upon a few prolific stories that highlight Jobs’ obvious character flaws. Fassbender keeps a chip on his shoulder much like Jobs did, and remains somewhat robotic in what should be heart-tugging moments worthy of a good emotional breakdown. The way he delivers soul-crushing blows to a girl of only five years is horridly moving, but Fassbender makes the unconscious attacks somewhat sympathetic, as we begin to care for a man who’d rather birth a computer than a child. Fassbender is the glue of Steve Jobs, and while I have physical qualms, there’s no denying the powerfully tragic performance he’s able to achieve as a man with unlimited power, and a complete indifference to social perception.
My problem with Steve Jobs is that it never tries to be anything more than touching remembrance of a man without any exploration of darker secrets already made to be public knowledge. I understand the necessity to remain positive and hopeful, circling back to complete an arc that starts with Jobs avoiding fatherhood through mathematical calculations, but Jobs’ questionable business maneuvers are glossed-over far too often. There’s more to the man in Sorkin’s screenplay, and we don’t get to meet those overlooked sides.
Jobs likens himself to Julius Caesar, remarking that everyone is out to betray him. He’s originally the cause of his own demise at Apple, as he throws away what could have been many productive years of collaboration with John Sculley. Instead, Jobs lets his mentor seal a doomed fate by his lonesome (the Newton, anyone?), and has the gall to quip “We could have done great things,” acknowledging what could have been given a swallowing of pride. This is the Jobs who demands to be immortalized by Fassbender, yet family dramatics become the relegated focus instead.
Don’t mix my words – Steve Jobs is an engrossing take on the dynamic between Steve and Lisa, and how their interactions evolved over time, but it doesn’t paint a full picture of Jobs, or provide any new insight into his stunted universe. He was a man against the masses, from Wozniak’s demands to be recognized, to Sculley’s dismissing of his genius, but we’re restricted to a family-friendly angle that warms the soul, yet leaves so much unsaid.
Boyle is a brilliant filmmaker, and his energetic touches can be felt through colorful title cards and multiple shifts in camera positioning, but it’s just not enough to distract from a tangent that’s like a heat-seeking missile honed-in on our emotions. You can find information about Jobs’ shady dealings just about anywhere else, and that’s what Sorkin wants you to do, because there’s no room for such details in a screenplay ripe with intelligence, drama, and tyrannical obsession. The film is a wonderful glimpse into the life of Jobs – it’s just not the whole picture.
Boyle's film is a short-sighted, albeit wonderfully acted and entertaining, look into the life of Steve Jobs that never quite captures a bigger-picture mentality.