Aaron Sorkin and Steve Jobs are a perfect fit for each other. In his films and on television, Sorkin has a hard-on for brilliant, wealthy white assholes who still somehow think they are not getting the respect they deserve. The Sorkin hero can lead to terrific entertainment – The Social Network is a dark satire about entitled bros – but in the biopic Steve Jobs the formula is wildly uneven. Sorkin takes Walter Isaacson’s dense Jobs biography and distills it into vignettes. Directed by Danny Boyle, who is a strange fit for this material, Steve Jobs is unabashedly theatrical and brimming with Sorkin-isms. Some scenes feel downright electric, with thoughtful insight about Jobs’ legacy, while others are laughably terrible. Few screenwriters carry so much clout, which is a shame since nowadays Sorkin seems like a victim of his success.
In terms of structure, Steve Jobs unfolds like a play. There are three distinct acts – set in 1984, 1988, and 1998, respectively – where Jobs (Michael Fassbender) prepares a product unveiling for journalists and eager industry types. Wandering through the theater, either in the auditorium or backstage, Jobs doles out more tongue-lashings than reassurances. Boyle highlights the time periods with different types of film stock, yet he mostly shoots with a serious of medium shots and the Sorkin “walk and talk” style that’s way too easy to parody.
Jobs never quite says what he’s thinking since he also must navigate a constant airing of grievances. The brilliant yet schlubby engineers Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen) and Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg) want credit that they’ve earned. The former Chairman of the Apple Board John Sculley (Jeff Daniels) is something between a father figure and a boss. Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston), the mother of Jobs’ daughter Lisa, fights on behalf of her child (three different young actresses portray Lisa). Since Jobs is a megalomaniac with severe personality flaws, Sorkin uses Apple’s marketing head Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet) as his stalwart friend and conscience. By ending his film before the iPod and iPhone revolution, Sorkin is able to suggest the depth of Jobs’ genius without really investigating it.
When Steve Jobs is good, it’s terrific. To my surprise and delight, the best scenes involve Rogen’s Wozniak, who is both decent and patient. His disagreement with Jobs distills the latter’s greatest insight: that the computer would eventually change civilization as we know it. History would prove Jobs right – Wozniak could only see the computer as something for geeky hobbyists – yet the arguments cut deeper than that. Rogen dials down his goofy laugh and cadence, using physical tics to internalize the role. The arguments with Hertzfeld are galvanizing, too, since Stuhlbarg’s performance is the quiet moral voice for all the employees Jobs would callously abuse over the years (he also has the best jokes).
But when Steve Jobs is bad – which is often – it infuriates, condescends, and self-aggrandizes. Jobs and Hoffman make a shrewd reference to “The Rite of Spring,” then explain it only for the audience’s behalf. Winslet’s character bizarrely has more of a Polish accent as the film continues. Nothing is quite as groan- inducing, however, as the protracted 1988 argument between Jobs and Sculley, which aspires to be an apocalyptic showdown and instead comes off as a snippy pissing contest. Throughout all the verbal sparring is Fassbender, who does not play Steve Jobs so much as he plays a Sorkin hero. There is little that’s recognizably human about Sorkin’s vision of his subject, and that’s because he contorts the man’s life into the sort of dramatic tension we’ve seen in countless episodes of Sports Night. Sorkin revisits his favorite ism – characters who argue about one thing, while thinking about another – to the point where he kills its novelty.
Aaron Sorkin is one the few working screenwriters for whom auteur theory always applies (others include Charlie Kaufman, Harold Pinter, and David Milch). In that sense, Steve Jobs is more of a Sorkin film than a Danny Boyle film. There are a couple of nice formal touches, like splashy montages, quick flashbacks to Jobs’ early life, and wisely-timed special effects (a blank wall comes alive to illustrate Job’s argument). Boyle’s workmanlike approach is the correct one, which only means the failures of Steve Jobs are almost entirely Sorkin’s fault. He asks us to believe that Jobs and his family/colleagues somehow have the same conversations with him over the course of fifteen years. Admittedly, the conceit largely works because Jobs was always a brilliant man, whose ideas were a generation ahead of the technology available to him.
Yet for all the concessions, Sorkin squanders them with the same trite horseshit that made The Newsroom borderline unwatchable. Steve Jobs admirably jettisons any plot, focusing on Jobs’ relationships instead, at least until the final ten minutes when Jobs decides to be a decent father or whatever. Coupled with flashy cinematography and another regrettable soundtrack choice, Steve Jobs ends on a maudlin denouement it does not earn. Like The Social Network, Aaron Sorkin again straight makes stuff up. Actual history, which is more complex and bizarre, deserves better than this film, which hints at insight then comes up short. Sorkin’s work can be an exhilarating – there are glimmers of it in Steve Jobs – but here he favors flat-out distortions for the greater glory of his favorite tropes. That’s not good writing. It’s masturbation.