Active Ingredients: Performances; Momentum
Side Effects: Constricting structure; Lack of heart
Buoyed by strong performances from actors skilled enough to internalize tricky dialogue from writer Aaron Sorkin, Steve Jobs is a fleet and involving film. Still, with so many words tripping so easily from the lips of every character, it doesn’t have much to say about the man or his times.
The film’s slavish dedication to its tripartite structure, an architecture that at least separates it from other lesser biopics, nonetheless hamstrings its power. Each third of the film takes place backstage at an important product release in Jobs’ career; each third of the film contains walk-and-talks with the same cast of characters from Jobs’ life; each third of the film contains one flashback woven into one of these conversations. On paper, this unique tactic could provide an opportunity to achieve a telling composite of the man, but the insistent structure only shines a spotlight on its own repetitions, shortcuts towards strained profundity. Experiencing the passion that went into these inventions would be preferable to hearing about it second-hand. Ultimately, these product releases feel titanic because the stakes are high for the characters—and because Jobs boasts of his epoch-shifting brilliance—but unlike The Social Network, Steve Jobs doesn’t use this tension to convince us of the importance of this technology, or the flesh-and-blood humanity of the force behind them.
Like Joss Whedon’s writing, Sorkin’s can rankle those with an allergy to his hyperintellectual patter and hyperactive rhythms, but he does capture an undeniable momentum that propels the film; his collaborators step on the gas, but the engine is recognizably Sorkin’s. Director Danny Boyle accentuates the script’s themes of insecurity through claustrophobic blocking across labyrinthian sets, and imbues the first act with a lively, period-approrpriate grainy texture. And, in the title role, the brilliant Michael Fassbender makes his knotty dialogue feel authentic and lived-in. If not revelatory or humane, the film’s version of Jobs feels at least convincing and consistent.
In the end, it’s precisely this lack of humanity that makes Steve Jobs compelling and entertaining, yet uninspired. It’s not that the film’s take on Jobs is ruthless, just that its insistence on Machiavellian politics and entrepreneurial brilliance leads to isolated moments of drama that don’t proliferate into true insights. Many critics bemoaned the inclusion of three key sequences with the young daughter Jobs refuses to recognize. True, they feel shoehorned into the story, but at least they provide heart and show that the world continues to turn outside this insular community of tech nerds and business sharks. Well, that and a surprisingly warm and impactful turn from Seth Rogen.