Dir. Danny Boyle. Starring Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Jeff Daniels
About an hour into Steve Jobs, it’s clear that something about the movie just isn’t working well enough. The first forty minutes are remarkably tight, so direct and effective that it’s easy to forget the freewheeling Danny Boyle is behind the wheel with a roadmap drawn by one of my mortal enemies, Aaron Sorkin. It’s 1984, Jobs (Fassbender) is preparing to present the Macintosh at a shareholders’ meeting to what he assumes will be a grateful, paying world. He is riding high. The risks he has taken are not insignificant—a Super Bowl commercial that anticipates Brazil more than it sells computers is the primary triumph—and already he is a millionaire hundreds of times over, a prince of business for whom the dragon’s teeth have already been planted. In 1984, the professional objections to him are fairly mild. Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg) cannot make the computer say “Hello” and is getting some icy guff from his boss about it; Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen) wishes that this rollout for the new computer would give a little more shine to the people who made the company’s workhorse and golden goose, the Apple II. (The Apple II is not absent of Jobs’ fingerprints, but its success is Wozniak’s success, not his, and every time someone says something good about the computer that keeps the lights on it burns Jobs up a little more.) The real problems are not professional for Jobs, but personal. Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston) has brought her daughter, Lisa (in this section, Makenzie Moss) to the event, intent on having it out with Jobs. He has, in Time magazine, openly denied that Lisa is his daughter despite the fact that a paternity test has found otherwise. He doesn’t seem to have a problem with Lisa. He and Brennan do not get on, but Lisa takes to the Macintosh, fooling around the Paint application, and Jobs likes her work more than he likes just about anything else in this act.
These first forty minutes move. Jobs is a heel, and in this iteration he is a deeply vulnerable one. Money and some fame have fail to inure him to something that cannot be made safe. The presentation must be just so, even if Hertzfeld has to use a completely different computer to say “Hello” than the one that’s being advertised there. Jobs is set off by some copies of Time magazine, is certain that he would have been Man of the Year if not for some journalistic malfeasance, is bitter that the computer on the cover of Time is not an Apple. Brennan represents a failure in his personal life that he can’t simply expunge, which is worse than the fact that their disagreeable, presumably messy breakup is in fact a failure in his personal life; Lisa is there, and she is the proof of a bad investment that he would be all too happy to clear from his ledger. Only John Sculley (Daniels), the company’s middle-aged CEO, Jobs’ self-identified father figure, plays psychoanalyst with him by tracing this fear back to his adoption. Jobs fills in the gap, saying that it laid a foundation to control as much as he could. The camera moves frequently from place to place, and it’s so steady that you could convince me that the actors were beamed, Star Trek style, from room to room. We cut rapidly, seamlessly between chats in the present and chats in the distant past; the most unsettling of these is absolutely the one in which Jobs looks uncomfortably like White Jesus and demands a simpler, less useful design than Wozniak is willing to pump out. Conversations flow easily from one person to another, conversations which inevitably put Jobs at the center and marketing chief Joanna Hoffman (Winslet) at the periphery, using Hoffman as a timekeeper, bathroom mirror, secretary, pager, dresser. I love the choice to put this section of the film in 16mm, which is a little bit gimmicky and obvious as a precursor to the 35mm and digital film which follow it, but come on, who is this movie about anyway? In what amounts to something very much like real time, Steve Jobs is dissected by the surgeons who will serve the same roles throughout the picture, and in much the same order. Hoffman: his anchor. Wozniak: a chirping conscience. Sculley: Laius. Lisa: himself. In the center of this fray is Michael Fassbender, who, to use a phrase I really loathe, disappears into the role. It’s hard to describe it any other way, but I simply stopped seeing one of my favorite actors and saw the character instead. He resurfaced for me somewhere in the third act of the film, but on the whole he was someone else.
In the movie’s second act (I keep saying “act” because the movie, which takes its basis from the Walter Isaacson biography, is actively designed to resemble a three-act play more than it is designed to resemble your average movie), that thrill fades away. Jobs’ justifiable ouster from Apple (for his Macintosh has brought sizable ruin to the company) is spearheaded by Sculley, who will, in the montage between the second and third acts, reveal himself to be just as insufficient to the task of leading a tech company to black ink. He is now running another company of his own making, NeXT (yee) and debuting a new computer which is basically a black cube without an OS. The surgeons open him up again. This time, the standout scene belongs not to Brennan and Lisa but to Wozniak, who is still at Apple but urges Jobs not to embarrass himself with a product that will undoubtedly fail just as the Macintosh did. Jobs is smarmy with him; Wozniak, not temperamentally given to outbursts, has his first of the movie. What is it that you do? What is it that you make? he asks. You can’t write a line of code, you’re not a designer, you don’t actually know how to do anything. These are valid points, but Jobs’ response is that he is like a conductor. Woz is a first chair player, but he has the gift of making the other musicians play together to create the music. In the third act, the standout scene again belongs to an argument between Wozniak and Jobs, this time in front of many randos. For Jobs, it comes down to the scoreboard: Apple was on the brink of failure without him, and with the iMac (dating myself by saying this is the first computer they talk about that I have seen in the flesh), the company is ascendant. He is the conductor. For Wozniak, it comes down to decency. “It’s not binary,” he says as he walks out of the auditorium; you do not have to make a choice between being successful and being an egomaniac who cannot stand success that is not his own. It’s not that there aren’t other good scenes in there—other people might highlight the fight between Jobs and Sculley before the NeXT launch, or the stand that Hoffman makes before the iMac launch—but it all has diminishing returns the more we see the same dynamics played out over the course of a relatively tight two-hour runtime. How many times can Jobs’ Oedipal anxieties come forth against Sculley before they feel like just another Oedipal story? How many times can Joanna Hoffman walk the line between standing up to this tyrant and letting some idea that only Jobs has the audacity to bring forth come to fruition? How many times can Wozniak ask Jobs to say thanks? How many times can Lisa plead for recognition?
The answer is three for each of them, obvs. The movie calls attention to it, which is deeply strange. Jobs makes a comment after having been excoriated multiple times before the iMac launch that it seems like the world gets loaded and unloads on him before these product launches, to which I found myself shouting at my TV, “I know, Aaron! I watched the movie!” The neatness of the movie’s structure is, to some extent, the selling point of the movie itself. Three product launches separated by a decade and a half, three bouts for Jobs against all these people playing Scrooge’s ghosts. By the third talk with Sculley, which is much closer in tone to the first than the second, that relationship is gummy and grasping at one of the odder interpretations of adoption that I’ve ever run into. Hoffman’s threat to quit unless Jobs makes things right with his daughter, by now a Harvard student, is a nice moment, but it’s too obviously something for Winslet to do after she’s spent the movie rearranging furniture. We’ve expected to see Lisa so long in that third act that by the time she shows up (in the body of Perla Haney-Jardine), there’s nothing she could say that wouldn’t be anticlimactic, and Sorkin can’t stop himself from writing a crack about how “Think different” isn’t grammatical. (My cat has a habit of getting behind the washing machine, which usually requires me to shift the washer forward enough so that he can jump out. About a week ago, I saw that he had enough space to squeeze himself between the wall and the washer, and decided I’d try to coax him out with a treat. Ever since then, he’s been looking in the laundry room to see if another treat has materialized in the same spot. I can only assume that Sorkin had a similar experience with The Elements of Style one time that my cat did with the treat and he’s been trying to relive it ever since.) No, the third time is certainly not the charm in this movie, and the second act has the trouble of many second acts, which is to say it’s connective tissue for the story and gristle for our teeth.
The answer is a little disappointing, maybe, but it seems clear that the right thing to do here was to tell a linear story. Flatten the thing. Start with White Jesus and Shaggier Wozniak; heck, start with tucked-in turtleneck Jobs and then flash back to White Jesus and Shaggier Wozniak and go from there. Do Citizen Kane, which in terms of its subject is not so very different from Steve Jobs, and highlight Wozniak, Sculley, and Hoffman in each act rather than zipping everyone around more or less equivalently in each one. What doesn’t work well enough in Steve Jobs is that it’s needlessly complicated, especially when I think what the movie is really most interested in is, most simply, the relationship and contrast between Jobs and Wozniak. The movie finds brilliance in both men, sees them as a left and right hand, and can really only bring itself to admire one of them. It may not have been so beautifully formulated a sentence, and maybe the punctuation wouldn’t have called attention to itself, but a narrower, more precise Steve Jobs might have been extraordinary.