Steve Jobs Starts With Big Ambition, But Settles for Small Drama

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Michael Fassbender as Steve Jobs. Photo: Francois Duhamel/Universal Pictures

The structure is ingenious: three plainly demarcated, 45-minute acts set in 1984, 1988, and 1998, each building to a momentous product launch and a seminal moment in the life of Steve Jobs (Michael Fassbender). It’s Aaron Sorkin’s way of turning Steve Jobs into a theatrical tour de force, compressing the exposition in Walter Isaacson’s 2011 biography to the point that it boils — and nearly boils over. 

The first act is a thing of beauty and the second, good enough. Shame about that third act, though, and the ending that retroactively diminishes everything that preceded it. Steve Jobs could be a study in what's wrong with a mainstream cinema that venerates celebrity above all and locates the tragedy of American life in the absence of good dads.

The first act — which leads to the unveiling of the first Macintosh computer — has all the seeds of the movie’s undoing, but it’s still amazing to watch: so many balls in the air. Mac software designer Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg) can’t guarantee the first part of the Mac demo — a smiley face that says “hello” — won’t crash the computer, which prompts Jobs to bully, threaten, and promise to kill him. Jobs needs that human face. It’s the key to differentiating his computer from the soulless-looking machines of IBM and other competitors, portrayed in a new, controversial, 1984-inspired commercial in which look-alike Orwellian slaves are liberated by the arrival of artists, dancers, and other wayward individualists. The question the movie raises is if Jobs has a human face.

Mac team member Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet) — whom Sorkin depicts as a kind of executive assistant — tries to temper Jobs’s fury, but no one can impede his drive for absolute control. Even more fervent is Apple CEO John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), a father figure who thinks the secret to Jobs’s conscienceless ambition is his inability to make peace with having been adopted. His paternalistic reassurances that Jobs has worth don’t register. Neither do the pleas by famed Apple pioneer Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), who argues unsuccessfully with Jobs to recognize publicly the team that built the Mac’s predecessor, the Apple II. More important is Wozniak’s indignation at the Mac’s closed operating system, which he regards as selfish, even antidemocratic. On the outside the Mac might smile and say hello, but inside it’s, hands-off.

The movie’s major thread is Jobs’s relationship — or lack of one — with his daughter, Lisa, who’s toted into the convention hall by his ex-girlfriend (Katherine Waterston). Jobs has denied paternity despite strong DNA evidence and — even though he’s worth hundreds of millions — won’t support them financially. He so hates being tied down that he crushes the enchanting 5-year-old’s spirit. He even tells her the “Lisa” computer that was named after her wasn’t named after her at all. I muttered — along, I suspect, with everyone else in the theater — “What a dick.”

Little of this happened in the exact way it does onscreen, but it’s generally accurate and performed at such a rollicking tempo that as you watch you hardly care. The camera trails the characters in the manner of Birdman, and director Danny Boyle keeps the traffic flowing expertly. Boyle doesn’t bring his own point of view — the way David Fincher chilled down and distanced Sorkin’s script for The Social Network — but you can’t fault his palette. He’s the deftest superficial director alive.

Like Sorkin, Boyle prizes energy above all, and Steve Jobs isn’t the hatchet job that the folks at Apple have long feared (and even denounced in advance of the opening). If Jobs is emotionally stunted, he still has kingly stature. He’s an icon up there with Einstein, Dylan, John Lennon ... and Apple can also rest assured that every one of Jobs’s social crimes and misdemeanors ultimately takes a backseat to his fatherhood.

The Hollywood-biopic template usually comes down to Dad: Dad who wasn’t there, Dad who was and was a belittling or violent bastard, Dad who set no example for his son on how to be a dad. Sorkin has said he had a hard time liking Jobs until he got to know Jobs’s daughter, whose character ends up a major figure in the film. I got a sinking feeling when Winslet’s Joanna started making speeches about fatherhood being Jobs’s most important achievement. Then Rogen’s Wozniak comes back, still yammering about the neglected (fatherless) Apple II team. Daniels’s Sculley creeps in — after a traumatic ten-year separation — to reiterate his thoughts about Jobs’s anger at being adopted and how that warped Jobs’s human relationships. Gradually, a film that began with an overflowing, Shakespearean quality, heralding cultural changes that would have more impact than the deaths of kings, turns banal, small.

I miss Alex Gibney’s perspective in his recent documentary The Man in the Machine. The film was overheated in spots — it couldn’t do full justice to the (unproven but interesting) contention that social media in the form of iPhones, etc. has done more to isolate than connect us. But Gibney made a great case that this man, who styled himself a counterculture Zen visionary, striking blows for freedom, was the most ruthless kind of capitalist, and that Jobs’s public search for Buddha-like inner peace let him paradoxically live with generating chaos. Gibney pegged Jobs’s real genius at branding — convincing us that his machines embodied our true selves.

In Steve Jobs, Sorkin introduces but doesn’t follow up on those themes. And while it’s true that the film ends in ’98, Sorkin doesn’t even hint at the Jobs who cut Apple’s philanthropic-outreach programs, stashed billions of his company’s profits overseas to keep from paying U.S. taxes, allegedly backdated checks for immense raises for himself, and allowed, if not encouraged, abominable working conditions in China. Steve Jobs is all about making time for Lisa.

Fassbender is a fine Jobs: He gets the lean, hungry, predatory gaze, and in the last act, in his black turtleneck and wire rims, he’s every inch the ascetic, high-tech guru. Although the character shrinks, he’s still the whole show. Rogen is a victim of Sorkin’s conception of Wozniak as a moralistic scold, and Winslet functions largely as a walk-and-talk sidekick/antagonist. (Her Polish accent comes and goes — I didn’t even catch it in the first act.) Stuhlbarg has an agreeable schlubbiness and Daniels hits good, plaintive notes when Sculley laments that he’ll go down in history as the man who fired Steve Jobs. But actors can do little with characters that talk a lot and evolve little.

One of the most ludicrous things in the last act of Steve Jobs is how almost everyone tells Jobs off publicly, right in front of his employees, who watch dumbly. Instead of abusing and/or firing them, Jobs listens hard and becomes a better dad. Maybe he did in life, but if that’s what Sorkin thinks is the real climax of the story, then he’s as insulated from the world as his protagonist. The film is an impressive feat, but it’s so myopic it dives headlong into the shallows.