I can picture The Onion on Steve Jobs, a large headline reading “Steve Jobs Was A Hero” with the subhead “Was Steve Jobs An Asshole?” A glut of biopics and documentaries have offered dissenting viewpoints, but you can tell which direction Aaron Sorkin and Danny Boyle bend while watching their new film. As the genius behind items you’re probably using right now, Michael Fassbender plays someone who views himself as a deity if not God himself. Strutting and sniping before his Macintosh, Next and IMac computers, with a mouth as innovative as each invention he presents in the film’s framing device (three product launches, a new machine for each of Sorkin’s acts) Fassbender’s Jobs is a dense, troubled inferno of a man.
Aaron Sorkin writes dialogue the way John Dillinger shot at cops. He’s better when he doesn’t like his characters—Sorkin becomes unbearably precious and didactic when he does—and he clearly has an almost personal set of grievances for Jobs, who denied paternity of his daughter Lisa (played by three different, and talented, actresses during the course of the film), cut down, ignored and used his colleagues (including Seth Rogan as former right hand man and amiable milquetoast Steve Wozniak) and destroyed seemingly every relationship he had save the one with his chief excecutive Joanna Hoffman, played by the usually sturdy Kate Winslet with an oscillating Polish accent.
Sorkin’s script for The Social Network is a masterclass in construction, but the movie was great because David Fincher’s visual expertise sanded over Sorkin’s television thinking and added weight to his words that made them cinematic. Danny Boyle, a hackish director who long buried his promise under cottage cheese aesthetics and pedantic noodling, infuses the screenplay with effects like subliminal inserts, melodramatic music queues and an adherence to Sorkin’s patented “walk and talk” that accomplishes nothing more than showing what Thomas Schlamme would do with Panavision.
Steve Jobs is saved—indeed, it becomes Boyle’s best movie despite his worst intentions—because of the superb acting by Fassbender, Rogan, Jeff Daniels (as Apple CEO John Sculley) and Katherine Waterston as Steve’s baby mama. Waterston has been a constant stunner ever since her breakout role as the melancholic beach bunny in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice, and she’s deepened her art in Alex Ross Perry’s moody psychodrama Queen Of Earth and here, where as Chrisann she’s liable to explode in hysterics at every dickish thing Jobs says to her.
A late film verbal battle royale between Jobs and Wozniak, played out in front of an auditorium of sycophantic underlings, is the best scene in the movie, primarily because Boyle trusts Sorkin’s searing words (“It’s not a binary. You can be caring and gifted at the same time,” Woz tells Jobs) and doesn’t try to sabotage them with his “look ma, I’m directing” sensibility. Daniels, settling phlegmatically into his current career typecasting as the tired-eyed businessman (it’s basically the same role he had in The Martian) displays resigned sadness at having to balance one man’s erratic high functionality with the bottom line. Rogan taps into the searching vulnerability of his more dramatically inclined performances, and the great character actor Michael Stuhlbarg issues a cutting putdown that you know will stay with Jobs forever.
“I’m poorly built,” Jobs tells one of Lisa’s iterations, though he doesn’t believe it himself, at least that’s how Fassbender, one of our finest, plays the moment. He’s above Sorkin’s dramatically uncomplicated mythologizing of real people. The genius/asshole but-who-ultimately-betters-the-world theme was developed with higher art in The Social Network; this feels like spare parts. As a movie it’s poorly built. But Fassbender, man. His commitment unblinking, his Bob Dylan worship lustily specious, his transformation in dress and personality in the journey from the dressing room to the stage efficiently calculated to project another person to his literal worshippers, all these elements coalesce into one of the year’s top acting achievements.
Steve Jobs is stirring but superficial, and undercuts itself by including flashbacks which offset the sweaty real-time feeling of the backstage squabbles. Left to his own devices Boyle is pathetic at worst, and his transitions and tryouts—breaking the “reel” (an effect stolen from Monte Hellmann’s Two Lane Blacktop) and projecting images onto walls as Steve speaks to their importance in his vision—remind us of effort, and we can see him sweat. We can hear Sorkin sweat too, making everything punchy and a tour de force. (He compared himself to Chayefsky at the Oscars, which is like Ronald McDonald judging himself superior to Gordon Ramsay.) Steve Jobs is so often excellent that the failures make one angry. It should have been TV.