I really feel bad for Ashton Kutcher after watching this one…
Steve Jobs, despite any and all controversy, is a good film – the writing is Sorkin-solid, the acting is above reproach, and Danny Boyle’s direction combines the two with the kind of energy and visual acumen that he’s known for. The film’s narrative structure is novel in its approach: we follow Steve Jobs (Michael Fassbender) as he interacts with those closest to him, personally and professionally, behind the scenes prior to three major product launches throughout the course of his career (in 1984, 1988 and 1998). This format allows Sorkin to flex his screenwriting muscle, editing history to weave together characters and backstory into convenient, clever scenes that flow into one another to tell an effortlessly coherent tale of an awfully brilliant, yet ultimately awful, man.
It’s unfortunate, then, that the noteworthy construction of the film is the source of the film’s greatest weaknesses. By setting the film’s three “scenes” years apart, we rely on outright explanations or short snippets of flashbacks, peppered throughout heated conversations, to construct the connective tissue between these gaps in time. The flashbacks never feel out of place and aren’t overused — however, as the film progresses further, the amount of time spent on exposition to catch us up on the years in between only grows, which only serves to pull us out of the emotional action of the scene since the characters have to set it up for us before they engage in it.
This is felt the most strongly in the final act, set ten years after the second, which leaves us with a lot to be caught up on. As a result, we’re left with an ultimately unsatisfactory resolution to all the character drama that the first two acts (set just four years apart) build so masterfully. Jobs’s relationship with his daughter felt the most shoehorned in, which is too bad as some of the best moments (edging on tearjerker territory) in the film’s duration come from Jobs’s troubled relationship with his oft-estranged child and the sparks of humanity that she occasionally pulls from his generally icy resolve.
One could say, then, that Steve Jobs is less of a biopic and more of a character study of a troubled genius, and in that regard, Steve Jobs is a masterpiece. This is probably a good thing, as Jobs’s character is arguably more interesting than his journey. Fassbender executes the role with cold brilliance, nailing down Jobs’s mannerisms while keeping him entertaining to watch, and just weirdly endearing enough to root for (though equal credit should also go to Sorkin’s writing).
The supporting cast carries their weight just as well: Kate Winslet plays Jobs’s right hand and holds her own against Fassbender, Jeff Daniels serves as Jobs’s father-figure/Apple CEO/mentor-that-was-bound-to-run-afoul-of-the-protagonist and still smells faintly of The Newsroom, but the most impressive is Seth Rogan playing Silicon Valley icon Steve Wozniak, in the greatest performance of his career to date. The film all-but-guarantees Oscar nominations for the cast, with Fassbender as a shoe-in for Best actor, and Rogan as my hopeful for Best Supporting; it goes without saying that the scenes they share are some of the best of the film.
The next Oscar to be doled out, naturally, would go to writer/force-of-nature Aaron Sorkin, who is one of a tiny handful of writers (Charlie Kaufman among them) that are so potent in their craft that regardless of the director attached, they are the leading credit of their work. A Sorkin film is a Sorkin film, and it has a speed and a rhythm of its own. It doesn’t matter if it’s Danny Boyle or David Fincher at the helm: Sorkin’s writing directs itself to an extent, and Steve Jobs is no different. True to form, his dialogue is simultaneously intelligent but accessible, engaging but aloof, unrealistic yet deeply human, and so it’s fortunate that the subject of the film fits those criteria, too.
With this, Sorkin continues his successful pattern of writing excellent works about brilliant assholes, endearing us to them despite their glaring flaws, which probably says a lot about Sorkin himself… but that’s beside the point. At the end of the day, Steve Jobs is a strongly written, cleverly structured, impeccably acted, and beautifully executed film that succeeds in being a very good movie, but fails to elevate the story, with its lopsided character arcs, into the annals of cinema history.