Review: “Steve Jobs”

Michael Fassbender stars as Steve Jobs in "Steve Jobs."“I’m going to put music in your pocket. One hundred songs. No, 500. I’m going to put between 500 and 1,000 songs in your pocket,” Steve Jobs blurts out to his college-aged daughter Lisa (Perla Haney-Jardine)—yes, the same daughter whose paternity he vulgarly denied in the pages of Time magazine over a decade earlier—in the midst of a hot-tempered verbal war over parental responsibility that, at least in screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s fashioning, occurred mere moments before the 1998 launch of the iMac computer. This late third-act moment in “Steve Jobs” admittedly won’t play effectively for everybody—my viewing companion laughed it off—but its execution is, at the very least, a good demonstration of why Danny Boyle was the right director for the material.

When I enter a movie, I try to divorce myself from all the news items I’ve read about said movie, but in this case, it was impossible not to have David Fincher on my mind. Fincher, of course, was originally slated to direct “Steve Jobs,” reteaming with Sorkin after 2010’s similarly-themed “The Social Network.” And given the critical and commercial success of the prior film about Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, it’s easy to see why Fincher would have sought repeat-success with this one. Both scripts focus on young men who wreak havoc on the personal lives of those closest to them—appointed with very similar bookends covering the protagonists’ respective relationships with women—in pursuit of “changing the world.” Both men’s narcissism verges on one screenwriter’s conception of autism. Both scripts ask the general question: “If the creator of the technology was such an asshole, then didn’t some of that assholery bleed over into the technology itself?”

But when I got to the line “I’m going to put between 500 and 1,000 songs in your pocket”—so out of the blue, and yet depicted as such a typical spur-of-the-moment digression for the protagonist—I knew that Fincher wasn’t the right guy for the job. Now, you might argue that this is a fault of the film, that it wasn’t until literally five minutes before the end that I had confirmation that Boyle was meant to direct. But never mind that: I had spent the previous two hours on the edge of my seat, transfixed, barely thinking about the value of each individual artistic choice except for when I got all giddy when the film stock changed from grainy 16mm to crisp 35mm to a somewhat washed-out 2K digital to denote the passage of time. It simply took an encounter with the most manufactured, Sorkin-epitomizing line in the script for me to externalize and appreciate Boyle’s custom tailoring. Fincher likely would have used this piece of dialogue as a punch-line, however brief and intermingled with Jobs’ other mile-a-minute rantings and ravings. We see this again and again in the (admittedly also incredibly effective) “The Social Network”: Mark Zuckerberg spits out a line he finds ingenious, and then stops for a minute as if to recognize his own ingeniousness (“The rest of my attention is back at the offices of Facebook, where my colleagues and I are doing things that no one in this room, including and especially your clients, are intellectually or creatively capable of doing.”) This fits Fincher’s directorial modus operandi: cold, calculated in precise musical bars, equally skeptical of human kindness as it is attuned to the miracle of human inventiveness.

What I mean to say is, given the similarity of the two scripts, there’s no indication that the Fincher version of “Steve Jobs” wouldn’t have just been “The Social Network 2,” which I think we can all agree would have been pretty reductive and yawn-inducing. And yes, I realize how unfair it is that I am downright projecting onto Fincher, a master-class director who certainly possesses artistic intuition and versatility. I’m doing so not to bash Fincher, but rather to communicate just how appreciative I am that Danny Boyle didn’t make “The Social Network 2” in spite of the fact that with “Steve Jobs,” Sorkin is once again, well, largely just being Sorkin. Which also is not a knock insofar as 99.9 percent of screenwriters wish they could write as well as Sorkin can, but I offer “The Newsroom” as proof that his own screenwriterly narcissism needs to be channeled by the proper director to instead adequately convey the characters’ narcissism.

So what, precisely, is so special about Boyle’s directorial approach to “Steve Jobs,” what makes the off-timed line “I’m going to put between 500 and 1,000 songs in your pocket” less damning of its orator than characteristically complex? I’d argue that Boyle’s choice to resist the age-old Kingmaker narrative—the “Citizen Kane”-inspired driving force of “The Social Network”—is what makes “Steve Jobs” the movie it is. Certainly, Jobs spends a lot of time here reminding people that he’s out to change the world, but by refraining from showing the audience most of the mass effects of Jobs’ labors—the movie ends right before the launch of the iMac, Jobs’ first unqualified success—Boyle resists any suggestion of Technological Determinism Made Possible By One Man. As a result, the film becomes an examination of the capitalistic virtue of persistence—it’s all about Steve Jobs the man who wouldn’t take no for an answer—rather than a hollow, glorified portrayal of the human cost of raw genius.

Sure, Sorkin had a role in this success, as he was the one who chose to set the movie backstage before three crucial Apple product launches in adapting Walter Isaacson’s bestselling book of interviews on Jobs, but it’s Boyle’s stylistic choices that cement the film’s approach. One can easily envision another director relying heavily on montages of consumers to show cause-and-effect, and animated line graphs of Apple’s stock price as a transition device. But Boyle keeps such tactics to a minimum, limiting himself to brief cutaways of attendees at Apple product launches doing The Wave in anticipation (already an established practice before Jobs became a celebrity) and stock footage from news broadcasts to convey only the most vital of expository information. The narrative of Jobs’ life becomes “a man who wouldn’t take no for an answer,” which seems like an obvious style of CEO management on its face, but is actually quite complex in execution, especially as we see the philosophy extend into his private life. Whereas “The Social Network” and other cinematic tales of capitalism are largely about boys playing God, “Steve Jobs” is about a boy who desperately wants to play God but can’t quite get there based on his own rubric — and further, why the intangibility of this goal is a positive thing, something that we as viewers should be optimistic about. Boyle delicately threads this needle in such a way that it never feels like a contradiction, let alone the least bit ironic, when Daniel Pemberton’s symphonic, lift-me-up-style score thunderously rejuvenates as the protagonist’s life occupies a constant state of unraveling.

Needless to say, all the trimmings, especially the performances, are top-notch. You don’t really need me to tell you that Michael Fassbender inhabits Jobs’ psyche far more vividly than Ashton Kutcher was able to in the nonetheless above-average “Jobs,” making any visual dissimilarity between he and Jobs a moot-point; that Kate Winslet injects a strong female vitality into this story that has rarely been popularly acknowledged up to this point, even if her character occasionally feels like a pawn for Sorkin to counter all the charges of misogyny leveled against him over the years; that Seth Rogen can be a really, really terrific actor when given the opportunity; and that Michael Stuhlbarg was meant to play Andy Hertzfeld, not Steve Jobs (and I mean that in the best possible way). Guided by Boyle’s sensibility, the cast forego the story of The Man Who Put 1,000 Songs in Your Pocket to vulnerably, humanely enact the trajectory of the man who desperately yearned for that title.