'Steve Jobs': A Film Is as Cold and Distant as Its Hero

Danny Boyle’s new biopic is a patently intelligent work with laudable intentions, yet unable to gain a satisfying heft.

Michael Fassbender stars in 'Steve Jobs.'
Francois Duhamel

“Steve Jobs,” directed by Danny Boyle (“Trainspotting,” “Slumdog Millionaire”) and written by Aaron Sorkin, is a movie that generates both respect and frustration. Biopics are a constant on our screens nowadays, most of them conventional in structure, only few attempting to offer something new. Boyle and Sorkin’s film belongs in the latter category – a fact that only becomes more obvious when we consider that Steve Jobs, who died in 2011 at the age of 56, was already the subject of a more traditional 2013 film biography, directed by Joshua Michael Stern and starring Ashton Kutcher (being screened Friday on HOT Gold at 22.00).

This is Sorkin’s second screenplay about a man who revolutionized modern-day society and culture; his first was “The Social Network,” released in 2010 and directed by David Fincher, about Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. The two movies are very different in structure. “The Social Network” was more conventional, whereas “Steve Jobs” tries to take the biopic in a unique direction. Still, they also have a great deal in common. For one thing, neither movie is out to compliment its hero. “The Social Network” used Zuckerberg’s figure and story to create an all-American allegory about an ambitious, talented young man driven by a sense of inferiority that rooted in both his social origins and his romantic failures. He climbs ruthlessly to the top only to find himself alone there, surrounded by enemies who want to destroy him. This plot trajectory, typical of American cinema from its early days and found in many gangster movies as well, emphasized the attempt made by “The Social Network” to fictionalize the historical truth in order to explore what success means in America.

Loneliness combined with megalomania and paranoia also define Steve Jobs in Sorkin’s screenplay; at one point in the movie, he compares himself to Julius Caesar. Here, too, we see a clear attempt to reshape fact as fiction, evident in the division of the movie into three acts that deal with three peak moments in the hero’s career. This structure makes “Steve Jobs” seem like it could someday become a play. The result has two unusual qualities for American cinema, which will appeal only to a small segment of the population and thus made its box-office failure extremely likely. First, all three acts take place in enclosed locations; second – and this may be even harder for audiences to palate – the action in the movie consists entirely of dialogue. Most American movies today are sparing with dialogue; I can’t remember another recent picture in which people talk so much, with different conversations mixing and overlapping.

To keep all this from seeming theatrically static and verbose, Boyle tries to provide a counterbalance in the form of camerawork that never stops moving. It works, but only up to a point. As much as I respect Sorkin’s effort to give the biopic a distinct shape and rely heavily on words, something is flawed in the dramatic essence of “Steve Jobs,” and the dialogue, while often brilliant, is just as often tedious.

The vision behind the face

“Steve Jobs” aims to paint the contradiction-filled portrait of a visionary. Sorkin and Boyle try to achieve this using a proven dramatic method: Jobs himself exposes his own nature, in the way he treats his ideas as well as the people around him, while other characters also shed light on him through their responses. This is a portrait of the visionary as an ambitious, megalomaniacal, cold and even cruel man. The main flaw of the earlier biopic about Jobs was that it made no attempt to portray him this way, and even if it had, Ashton Kutcher, who played Jobs, couldn’t convey these qualities. Michael Fassbender, who stars in Boyle and Sorkin’s film, can, and in “Steve Jobs” he gives yet another careful, precise performance. He does not try to plead with us or make us identify with him, and he is not afraid to play Jobs in a dull, almost monotonous way, which still leaves us room to see the vision behind his largely impassive face.

The characters surrounding Jobs include Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), software designer Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg), and Apple C.E.O. John Sculley (Jeff Daniels). One source of emotion in the movie is Jobs’ ex-girlfriend, Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston), and their daughter, Lisa (played first by Makenzie Moss and then by Perla Haney-Jardine), who are present at key moments in his career. Jobs refuses to share his considerable wealth with them, leaving the two to fend for themselves under appalling conditions. The only person able to cope with Jobs is marketing director Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), and while all the supporting actors do good work, Winslet deserves special mention.

I won’t go into the details of how Jobs’ technological vision develops in the three acts of “Steve Jobs.” They take place fairly close together in time, but the film moves from one to the next without mentioning how much time has passed. The idea is to create a sense of dramatic flow in which each act completes the one that preceded it; Jobs is led from success to failure to success again. The movie relies too much on the audience’s knowledge of the technological revolution that Jobs helped create, and since my own understanding of that revolution is superficial, to say the least, I won’t discuss it.

The movie is also more interested in what makes a person a visionary than in the nature of the vision itself, and some might consider this a fatal flaw that keeps the result from soaring. It was a good idea to open “Steve Jobs” with a black-and-white clip in which Arthur C. Clarke, who based his screenplay for Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” on one of his own stories, saying that computers will one day be as popular as the telephone. However, the movie lacks that extra level that would have placed Jobs in a wider historical, cultural, social and economic context. The frustration – and, to some extent, exhaustion – that the movie arouses comes from the fact that it is a patently intelligent work with laudable intentions, and yet unable to gain a satisfying heft.

To some extent, “Steve Jobs” was made in the image of its hero, a fact that might have made it more interesting if it had been fulfilled more effectively. It is cold and distant, and it has a vision of its own; but that vision is flawed, and it demonstrates – as Jobs himself did – that intelligence alone is not enough. As a movie about a visionary, “Steve Jobs” is an interesting work; as a movie that manages to turn such a portrait into a meaningful drama, it is essentially flawed.