How do you make a movie about Steve Jobs? You don't put Ashton Kutcher in the lead role. Nor do you give the reins to a hacky director like Joshua Michael Stern. Finally, you don't trust a brand-new screenwriter like Matt Whiteley to make it anything anyone would actually want to watch. 2013's Jobs was an outright failure in every sense of the word, and rightfully should have scared away anyone else in Hollywood from producing another story about the Apple mogul's life.
Unless you're Aaron Sorkin. Having already given the filmic treatment to another prickly tech wiz in 2010's brilliant The Social Network, Sorkin is actually the logical scribe to bring Jobs to life on the big screen. Much like in that film, Sorkin abandons the biopic mold in favor of a boldly theatrical, high-concept plot structure. We see Jobs and all the people whirling around his gravitational pull just before three different product launches over the course of ten years. Each of these triptych-like sequences unfold in real time, which lends the film a sense of well needed tension.
Because this is a Sorkin-penned joint, you can expect his characters to talk-talk-talk their way to getting what they want, with all the rhetorical flourishes and Big Speeches we've come to expect from him. Sorkin derives his material chiefly from the superlative and exhaustive 2011 biography by Walter Isaacson, as well as many interviews Sorkin conducted over the course of a few years.
Like that book, the film's narrative gleefully throws all of Jobs's flaws and shortcomings at his feet, dispelling any possibility of this movie coming across as mere hagiography. Sure, we get to see Jobs bask in the glow of his gleaming, new products, but keep in mind that two of them -- the original Macintosh and Jobs's ill-conceived, comeback play, the NeXT -- were outright failures. The opportunity to hear Sorkin's words stream through the mouths of some of the best character actors working today is the film's chief pleasure.
Jobs is played with characteristic zeal and intensity by Michael Fassbender. There was a lot of hoopla leading up to the film's production about who was to portray Jobs, the most hoopla'd-about being Christian Bale. Fassbender obviously has some considerable Mom Jeans to fill in this role, and he does so excellently. Kate Winslet is Joanna Hoffman, an Apple marketing executive who acts in the film as Jobs's so-called "work wife" and closest confidant. Seth Rogen gets to trot out his considerable dramatic talent as a bruised-but-not-beaten Steve Wozniak, the co-founder of Apple who just wants the slightest recognition from his partner.
Best of all in the supporting cast are Sorkin-veteran Jeff Daniels as Apple CEO and Jobs father-figure John Sculley and Michael Stuhlbarg as computer scientist Andy Hertzfeld. Both men act as opposing sides of the same coin, the former of whom Jobs uses as a mentor and the latter Jobs ought to trust as a mentor. Perhaps better than anyone on the cast, Daniels knows how to work his way around Sorkin's rattatat dialogue. He has the rhythm down like a primo ballerino. Stuhlbarg brings a completely different sensibility to the film. As an actor, Stuhlbarg almost always gives a measured, precise line reading, something that he does so here, as well. His slower approach refreshes the film, which can be tiring to follow, what with the relentless forward motion of the dialogue.
What with Sorkin's fingerprints all over the film, it's easy to forget that it was directed by none other than Oscar-winner Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire, Trainspotting). Some critics have gone so far to say that Sorkin hijacks the film from Boyle, what with the constant walking and talking that happens throughout its runtime. But Boyle cannily injects some seriously gorgeous imagery throughout the gabfest, as well as kinetic editing that saves the film from being too stagey. He also works with Sunshine cinematographer, Alwin Kuchler, who uses different film stocks depending on the time period. For example, the 1984 Macintosh launch comes through in grainy 16mm, 1988's NeXT launch is in gorgeous 35mm, and the 1998 iMac launch is in razor-sharp digital. It's a subtle touch that makes this squarely a story that could be told only visually, Sorkin's radio drama-leanings notwithstanding.
But, and this is a big one, Sorkin fails, once again, to handle relationships between men and women in anything less than the clunkiest and most regressive fashion possible. The final cog in the film's gear is Chrisann Brennan, Jobs's baby mama, who is played by Katherine Waterston. Every other thread of this story that could have been remotely true in real life is given the most streamlined, freewheeling approach by Sorkin (no, a cavalcade of Jobs's associates did not swamp him before every product launch, a wrinkle of the screenplay Sorkin awkwardly hangs a lantern on in the film). However, he gives an absurd amount of time to the melodramatic and highly not-compelling relationship between Jobs, Brennan and their shared daughter, Lisa. While this aspect of Jobs's life was ripe for coverage in Isaacson's book, it serves only to gum up the otherwise electrifying proceedings between Jobs and his fellow Apple-folk. Waterston's performance is not unlike the horrid outfits she wears: drab, dull and sad-looking. In true Sorkin fashion, he makes her into a complete shrew we can only root against, even in spite of Jobs's clear mistreatment of her. That the film ultimately chooses this plotline to follow through to the end is a major disappointment, and ends the film on a completely false note.
If you're hankering for a Sorkin fix after the demise of The Newsroom, look no further than Steve Jobs, a film that bears his influence more heavily than any other to date. It never comes close to the dizzying heights of The Social Network, a near-perfect film, but I can still respect the effort. For Sorkin to flub the landing, too, is a shame, but it's thrilling even to watch him fail.