For someone who’s openly contemptuous of Internet culture in general and social media in particular, Aaron Sorkin sure does spend a lot of time writing about the important figures of those movements. In fact, he very well might’ve taken on adapting Walter Isaacson’s biography Steve Jobs for director Danny Boyle as a get-back-to-what-works strategy after the (charitably speaking) mixed reception to The Newsroom — a cynical assumption, perhaps, but if that was the logic, it worked. The film, which screened as the Centerpiece selection of the New York Film Festival last weekend, is a reminder of Sorkin’s true gifts as a dramatist; it also boasts a crackerjack ensemble cast, subtle yet substantial direction by Boyle, and a welcome explosion of exceedingly tedious biopic tropes.
The latter point, Sorkin explained at the press conference following Saturday’s NYFF media screening, was key to him from the beginning. “Before I knew what I wanted to do, I knew what I didn’t want to do, and that was a biopic,” he said. “That was the conventional cradle-to-grave structure, where you land on all the greatest hits along the way. It’s a structure that’s familiar to audiences, and I didn’t think I’d be able to shake it, I didn’t think I’d be that good at it… So I wondered if I could take all of the work that Walter had done, and if there was a way to dramatize the points of friction in Steve’s life, and dramatize them in this way.”
“This way,” is to boil the story down to three scenes, each tick-tocking the minutes leading up to the three key product presentations of Jobs’ career: the Apple Macintosh in 1984, the NeXT (the competitor computer he developed after leaving Apple) in 1988, and the iMac (upon his triumphant return) in 1998. Boyle shoots each on a different film or video stock, and the ingenious device gives the film an almost mathematical three-act structure; it also sets up recurring themes and dialectical repetitions, patterns that reappear from scene to scene, and throughout Jobs’s life.
There is his co-dependent relationship with head of marketing Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), who’s a combination sounding board, conscience, and stage manager. There is the ongoing tension with his Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), the design genius who’d maybe like a bit more credit distributed to his team (and, though he won’t say it, himself). There are fights over technical details (and later, familial ones) with engineer Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg). There is the tricky dynamic with Apple CEO John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), a father figure who becomes an estranged family member. And there is the matter of Lisa, the daughter he initially won’t even acknowledge, and can never quite figure out how to handle.
In each sequence, familiar beats reappear: arguments, accusations, requests for money, demands for time. By the third time around, even Jobs himself comments on it: “Five minutes before every launch, everybody goes to a bar, gets drunk, and tells me what they really think?” It gets a big, knowing laugh — because it’s an acknowledgment of the construction by filmmakers who are taking some liberties for dramatic purposes, delivered to an audience that gets it.
However, no matter what the structure, it’s somewhat inevitable that a biographical film portrait circa 2015 must wrestle with the notion of the genius who’s hard to get along with. “Do you want to try being reasonable? Just to see what it feels like?” Joanna asks him. “It’s not binary. You can be decent and gifted at the same time,” Woz insists. But Jobs, at least initially, is disinterested in the notion of likability: “God sent his own son on a suicide mission. But we like him, because he made trees!”
“I think the really cool thing about Aaron’s script is that everyone wants affection from Steve in this movie,” author Isaacson explained Saturday. “Everybody wants it because he’s such a compelling, Shakespearean, Prince-Hal-becoming-Henry-V [character]; everybody wants to be on St. Crispin’s Day with him… but he’s tough.” Isaacson wasn’t the only one to drop the S-word; Boyle said, of physical resemblances and historical accuracy, “It’s Shakespearean, really. He’s a historical figure for us, for our generation, and there were facts that were true, and a lot of stuff that was dispensed with as well. It’s about the man, really, and his relationship with these other people.” (Fassbender claimed he warned Boyle, regarding his predecessor in the role, “Christian Bale looks a lot more like Steve Jobs than I do,” and of his own preparation, he joked of a less-illustrious telling of the story some time back, “I studied Ashton Kutcher.”)
With so much name-checking of the Bard, perhaps its easier to understand and forgive the picture’s minor crime of schmaltz, in both the details of his relationship with little Lisa and his evolution into a slightly better version of himself. This is where the film does eventually succumb to the requirements of the mainstream marketplace; it would’ve been nice to see something a little closer to the grimly perfect closing images of the Sorkin-penned The Social Network, cult of Mac be damned. But the picture doesn’t turn all the way soft — it merely allows its protagonist, at a key moment, to announce “I honestly don’t know,” recognizing how much it takes for someone like him to say something like that.
And if the characterization is Shakespearean, then there’s certainly a line to be drawn to the film’s dialogue, too: how its cadences and rhythms are distinct enough to form a language of their own (“Sorkin-ese,” Winslet dubs it); the way the script moves fast, turns sharply, and snaps back on itself; the wonderful way Sorkin will make great lines into throwaways, off-hand wit that doesn’t hold for the laugh (Andy, of the daughter: “This can’t be Lisa! Lisa’s this big!” Jobs: “They get taller”). But the musicality of the dialogue can distract us from its other qualities — most importantly, how Sorkin can repurpose exposition as drama. Watch the business with him and five-year-old Lisa playing with the Mac, or better yet, watch Jobs and Woz’s big blow-out fight before the ’98 unveiling, right out in front of a reporter and several employees, which tinges with the electricity of a legitimately awkward public confrontation, while also capturing the specific way two people who actually care about each other will simply let the other have it if they’re pushed hard enough. At its essence, that’s just a scene of two people talking — but it’s more thrilling than any car chase, or superhero battle, or dinosaur rampage. And that goes for the movie, too.
Steve Jobs screened last weekend at the New York Film Festival. It opens Friday in limited release, expanding throughout October.