By Dan Cava
October 23, 2015
About halfway through Steve Jobs, Steve Jobs compares himself to Julius Caesar. The first allusion is obvious and powerful: a historical ruler, an emperor even, glorious in his qualities and his defects, creating both his triumphs and his tribulations by the same strokes of power and hubris. The other more subtle but equally as important allusion is not to the Julius Caesar of history but to the “Julius Caesar” of literature. William Shakespeare’s construction of the Roman tyrant, as with all his historical subjects, was no mere bioplay– starting at the beginning, hitting on the high points, ending at the end, bring up the house lights. It was a radically selective and radically fictionalized evocation of the man through a handful of scenes, a handful of characters, and a flood of words words words. And now, thousands of years after Caesar and hundreds of years after Shakespeare, only the hardcore historians know or even care about the difference between the man and the myth, between the archeological facts and the Aristotelian truth, between Caesar and “Caesar.”
Whether screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing, Moneyball, The Social Network) is the Shakespeare of our screens is a matter of debate, but Sorkin’s powerful appropriation of the Bard’s tactics in Steve Jobs shouldn’t be. It works, and under the smart and snappy direction of Danny Boyle, it works like crazy. Steve Jobs forgoes the nose-to-tail structure of Walter Isaacson’s authorized biography (officially the movie’s source material) for something much more daring and, as it turns out given the Shakespeare reference, much more timeless. The film unfolds in three self-contained acts, each depicting the backstage drama before three successive product launches: Apple’s first Mac computer in 1984, NeXT’s Black Cube in 1988, and Apple’s revitalized iMac in 1998. Michael Fassbender, in brilliant and Oscar-worthy turn as the title character, walks and talks relentlessly through each act, darting through a seemingly endless labyrinth of hallways and staircases, coaxing, cajoling, demanding everything of everyone around him. Family members come and go, assistants and technicians scramble, clocks tick toward showtime, and all the while Jobs is on the move, creating the future at the expense of his past.
Director Danny Boyle has always straddled the fine line between exhilarating and exhausting. Previous efforts like Trainspotting, Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours and Trance are enormously sensual affairs with kaleidoscopic camerawork and rapid fire editing. Here in Steve Jobs, Boyle dials back the fireworks somewhat to make room for Sorkin’s word flood, but the energy is still there, as the overtly theatrical screenplay and overtly cinematic visuals work in tandem almost all of the time. A couple of special effect flourishes feel out of place, but otherwise the movie roars along at a nice clip, and the unconventional structure makes more and more sense as the meaningful moments and loaded conversations pile on. The artifice of it all isn’t hard to see or hear, as clearly no one, not even Steve Jobs, experiences this much familial and vocational drama in two hours, nor does that drama recur so tidily every few years. But again, like Shakespeare on stage, the artificiality that Sorkin and Boyle bring is kind of the point. Job’s mythic public legacy was in many ways defined by his presence on-stage, so it makes perfect artistic sense to go backstage to create the “truth” of his personal life. The inner world of the man is a seen here much like Jobs intended us to see all the world: mediated through a screen and controlled end-to-end. Steve Jobs is not an explanation told throughs fact, it’s an interpretation told through technology.
And given the sheer amount of dialogue in this or any other Sorkin project, it’s the cast that does the telling. Over the last couple of years, the role of Steve Jobs went through a few capable hands as the movie struggled through development, but last-minute choice, Michael Fassbender, turns out to be a godsend. Fassbender has always had presence to spare, and his nervy and intelligent embodiment of Jobs makes him the gravitational center of the many, many rooms he walks into. Kate Winslet gives yet another magnificently selfless performance as Jobs’ longsuffering head of marketing and work-wife Joanna Hoffman. Seth Rogan’s teddy bear appeal has always made him instantly endearing, while his folksy but consistently perfect timing hinted at a latent yet untapped intelligence. Here his casting as jilted Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak is a stroke of genius, and his toe-to-toe scenes with Fassbender brim with wounded indignation. Rising star Katherine Waterston (Inherent Vice) manages to be both empathetic and vaguely off-putting as Jobs’ rejected baby mama Chrisann Brennan. Sorkin veteran Jeff Daniels brings the same verbal command he brought to The Newsroom to Apple CEO John Scully, and Michael Stuhlbarg (A Serious Man, Boardwalk Empire) proves yet again that he can do absolutely anything, this time as pudgy, beleaguered computer engineer Andy Hertzfeld. In the best way, Sorkin’s words always sound like Sorkin (when have they ever not?), and the characters always sound like themselves. The performances are uniformly excellent.
If Steve Jobs stumbles anywhere, it’s when the magic balance of fact and fiction seems to teeter too far in one direction or the other. Most of the time, everything has the kind of interpretative clarity that justifies the screenplay’s structural gymnastics. It’s hard to put a finger on why, but a couple of key moments (and the ending in particular) feel less truthful than others. Perhaps the complexity of the man outran the needs of a Hollywood movie, as I wondered if one or two of the movie’s contrivances jived with the actual Jobs. Whether the tonal shifts are meant to be genuine or ironic, they are noticeable; and, in a movie that walks its tightrope so expertly so often, the little missteps are hard to miss.
The overall impact of Steve Jobs is still resoundly strong. I’ve always been a lover of drama, of big words, of great actors and of big ideas. Steve Jobs pushes hard on all fronts. When it’s good, it’s better than most movies; and when it’s great, which is most of the time, it’s nirvana. “Bid me run, and I will strive with things impossible.” – Julius Caesar, Act II, Scene 1. So, Steve Jobs strives. And succeeds.
Star rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars