If you are seriously wanting a Danny Boyle film, Steve Jobs isn’t it. It is, I suppose, to Boyle’s filmography what Room Service (1938) is to the Marx Brothers — a film with them, but not a Marx Brothers movie. What we have here is Danny Boyle efficiently and slickly (and seemingly dispassionately) capturing an Aaron Sorkin screenplay with an endlessly moving camera — and an occasional “subliminal” cut — disguising the fact that it’s largely two hours of talk — mostly delivered at breakneck speed and often shouted. It doesn’t so much reinvent the biopic as it breaks it into a series of anticlimactic acts and talks it to death. It is Steve Jobs Sorkinized. Forty years ago, it might have been Chayefsky-ized. I’m not saying it’s bad, but your take on it will be more than slightly determined by how much you like Sorkin’s style of writing. And I am less worshipful of his bombastic verbal shenanigans than I’m supposed to be. As a result, I am not as keen on Steve Jobs as might be expected.
It is, however, worth noting that I found the film almost compulsively watchable, even while not particularly persuasive. (It is almost certainly nothing I will feel the need to watch a second time. Citizen Jobs, this is not.) Sorkin’s big attempt at breaking away from the biopic form consists entirely of its three-act structure surrounding the launches of the Mac in 1984, the NeXT cube in 1988 and the iMac in 1998. Actually, it doesn’t depict the launches, but only the moments leading up to those launches, with the film skipping to the next launch before the presentations. If that seems like a whole lot of foreplay, without much in the way of consummation, that’s because it is. It’s a backstage show without a play. (This will not keep the film from delivering a standing ovation for Jobs at the end.)
Sorkin’s realistically improbable, but dramatically viable, hook is to stage high-powered conflicts with the same collection of people in each instance — Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg) — with ex-girlfriend Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston) and daughter Lisa (played by Mackenzie Moss at five, Ripley Sobo at nine, Perla Haney-Jardine at 19) hovering around the edges. I give high marks to how effectively (if simplistically) Sorkin sketches them in, but they are inevitably fated to end up being steamrolled by the towering arrogance and narcissism of Jobs (Michael Fassbender) — much like their real-life counterparts. More troublesome — especially for a movie wants to reinvent the biopic — is that ultimately it’s reduced to a domestic drama about Jobs and his daughter. How much more old-fashioned can you get?
Yes, the performances are all solid — even more than solid in many cases. Yes, Sorkin’s dialogue contains some well-placed zingers. Yes, Boyle keeps it all moving at a pace that sometimes keeps the talkiness manageable. But does it bring anything new to bear on the subject of Steve Jobs? On the contrary — it relies very much on what the viewer already knows. Unless you’ve seen Alex Gibney’s documentary, Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine, released a month ago, or are otherwise well-versed in the Jobs legend — things that allow you to read between the lines — it offers little other than the comfort of a narrative format. I went in knowing that Jobs was a pretty miserable human being who had the knack to envision technical innovations and the staff to make those ideas work. That’s about what I knew on the way out — except for the almost certainly fabricated reason behind the creation of the iPod. Rated R for language.