The trick to enjoying an Aaron Sorkin project is to never take it as seriously as he does. The creator of The West Wing and The Newsroom and the Oscar-winning screenwriter of The Social Network doesn’t write dialogue—he stages showy talk-fests that are meant to either show off how smart his characters are or how smart he thinks he is. His stories are almost never simple, and are meant to be an exploration of How We Live Today or, more often, What The Hell’s Wrong With You That You Don’t See The World The Way I Do? In turn, Sorkin’s immense talent is funneled into making ludicrous, entertaining mainstream polemics. It’s best to approach them with more of a sense of humor than he does.
That’s to say that going into Steve Jobs hoping to learn about the “real” Steve Jobs is foolhardy. Like The Social Network, if less convincingly, this movie isn’t about Apple’s co-founder but rather what Sorkin thinks about Jobs and the culture around Jobs. Audacious and engaging, Steve Jobs is probably the one biopic/true story coming this Oscar season that doesn’t require a follow-up news story about its historical inaccuracies. In your bones, you know Steve Jobs is about showmanship, not fact-checking. That’s perfectly fine—in fact, it can even be really fun, up to a point.
Directed by Danny Boyle, who normally treats screenplays as just a blueprint for laying out his hyper-stylish sound-and-picture panoplies, Steve Jobs shakes up biopic convention by telling its story in three separate sequences, each based around a Jobs product launch. We see 1984’s unveiling of the Macintosh, 1988’s announcement of NeXT, and the 1998 debut of the iMac. In typical Sorkin fashion, it’s a self-consciously brilliant way to dramatize the man’s life, focusing on his P.T. Barnum quality that helped make him an icon far beyond the computing world. (Plus, the film’s structure allows Sorkin to get away with the walk-and-talk scenes he adores; characters are constantly moving through space as Jobs prepares to deliver his big presentation to an adoring crowd.)
Jobs is played by Michael Fassbender, who gives a pretty ingenious performance that relies almost entirely on superficiality. He’s become a master of portraying men whose magnetic presence might be hiding something troubling underneath in his brief career thus far: think of the handsome sex addict of Shame or the slightly haughty android of Prometheus. Intentionally, Fassbender doesn’t try to “solve” the mystery of Jobs and he doesn’t overly worry about sounding like the guy, either. Really, this is an acting job in which conjuring an essence is key, and Fassbender nails Jobs’ guru-like allure, while also making room for his ruthless competitiveness, which was just as crucial a component of the public perception of this man. In some ways, Fassbender isn’t playing Jobs but, rather, the Jobs we assume we knew.
Meanwhile, Boyle and Sorkin play armchair psychiatrist. Drawing from Walter Isaacson’s 2011 biography, published just a few weeks after Jobs’ death, Steve Jobs presents us with this Charles Foster Kane-like figure and then goes on a hunt for Rosebuds. And the movie zeroes in on two: his failure to connect with his first daughter Lisa (who’s portrayed by different actresses during the three set pieces), and his inability to get over the fact that he was adopted.
Sorkin tried a similar technique in The Social Network, reductively explaining Mark Zuckerberg’s drive to create Facebook on the fact that Rooney Mara dumped him and he wanted to be popular. That film’s theories worked a lot better because director David Fincher seemed to regard them with the same chilly remove he views everything in his movies. But because Boyle is working in the same humanist mode that informed Slumdog Millionaire—he’s not brutally nihilistic like he was for Shallow Grave—Steve Jobs doesn’t have the same pessimistic spirit that made The Social Network so fascinatingly frosty. This movie wants you to know that Jobs had a broken soul in need of repair—and that Steve Jobs will show you how he found the road to redemption. There’s nothing wrong with that approach, but it is simplistic, limiting the high-wire energy that is this movie’s chief selling point.
In each of its three parts, Steve Jobs takes us behind the scenes as Jobs confers with his unfailingly loyal marketing maven Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet) to deal with whatever last-minute emergency has presented itself. (Notably, we never see the actual presentations: Steve Jobs wants to give us a glimpse of the fireworks that happened before Jobs stepped out on that stage.) Through these backstage dramas, we meet the key players in Jobs’ world: his friendly sparring partner Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), Apple CEO John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), nerdy computer scientist Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg) and former lover Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston), who insists that he acknowledge his paternity of Lisa. This setup gives Sorkin plenty of opportunity to dream up the controlled-chaos scenarios that were the hallmark of most of his TV shows—everybody’s quipping and hustling around while Jobs essentially plays the cool, calm President Bartlet (albeit a more vindictive one) at the center. By this point, Sorkin’s M.O. should have calcified into shtick—on The Newsroom, it often did—but maybe because he’s working with real people in Steve Jobs, he brings his A-game, the interactions always a fizzy delight.
Boyle still injects his stylistic flourishes into the mix, but Steve Jobs is relatively muted by his overheated standards. His main job is to make sure to keep the trains running on time, and in each of the three sequences he focuses on the warring personalities pulling at Jobs in every direction. In the wrong hands, Steve Jobs could easily have been a screwball absurdity, Boyle and Sorkin turning Jobs’ life into a scene from 8 1/2. But while the filmmakers do try way too hard selling us on their one-dimensional vision of Jobs as “nuanced” troubled genius, Steve Jobs has the crisp, brisk air of a thoughtful examination of a public figure who captivated the world until the day he died. Sorkin’s version of Jobs is probably as reliable as any other outsider’s who approaches it with his own thematic preoccupations, which means you shouldn’t accept it as gospel. When Jobs was alive, I never much cared about the Cult of Apple: I just wanted to know if the damn machines worked. That goes double for Steve Jobs: You don’t have to buy into Sorkin’s self-regard to get a lot of use out of his creation.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.