By Michael Calleri
Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin seems uninterested in either the benefits or negatives of technology. Paying attention to these aspects of our brave new world would compel him to write screenplays with depth and a modicum of intelligent interpretation, thus avoiding the mundane superficiality he brought to “The Social Network” and currently brings to the ponderous “Steve Jobs.”
Sorkin is a playground bully, albeit cinematically. He taunts rather than thinks. As a writer, he’s a churlish brat, one willing to mock, rather than analyze.
In “The Social Network,” a moderate hit, Sorkin pushed and shoved his viewpoint that Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg was a cold, insular, insufferable, and friendless bore.
In “Steve Jobs,” which failed at the box office on its opening weekend, Sorkin again delivers a central figure, Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, who is a cold, insular, insufferable, and friendless bore.
Both Zuckerberg and Jobs are infinitely more complex, and interesting, than Sorkin seems capable of handling.
In neither movie does he dare to tackle the effects – the technological benefits (or drawbacks) – of what Zuckerberg and Jobs did, how both men helped change, certainly with the assistance of others, the way people interact and communicate.
Writing a multi-layered screenplay about “objects” and the global desire to reach out is much more difficult than writing a screenplay that paints pictures of men who, in Sorkin’s vapid view of the world, are egomaniacal misanthropes. Essentially, they are mean little trolls, contemptuous of those around them.
Hostile dialogue is easy to write. Context eludes Sorkin.
Not only is “Steve Jobs” shallow, but it’s also repetitive, often mind-numbingly so. The events seen in the film take place in three sections. If this were the theater, there’d be three acts. Not much would be required to mount a stage production of the movie. It’s that mechanical.
In each part, Jobs (played well, but not great, by Michael Fassbender) is backstage at a San Francisco-area auditorium, theater, or concert hall) preparing to launch one of his early computing products. There is no exploration as to how the specific computer came to be. Sorkin only wants his film to expose Jobs’s sins, not offer insights into why he’s preparing to take a bow before a rapturous audience.
Part one is about what occurs in a dressing room before the 1984 introduction of the Macintosh computer. Part two is about what occurs in a dressing room before the 1988 introduction of the NeXT computer. (Jobs had been fired by the Apple Board of Directors and had started his own company.) Part three is about what occurs in a dressing room before the 1998 introduction of the iMac computer. (Jobs was back in charge at Apple.)
In each of the parts, Sorkin’s Jobs is man who struts and preens and basically compares himself to God, Einstein, and Gandhi. He’s always in the stages of getting dressed for the three presentations. Because watching even as talented an actor as Fassbender do nothing except tell us how great his character is can become tiresome, Jobs will need people to abuse intellectually and emotionally.
In Sorkin’s worldview, as the clock is ticking to the start of each of the product introductions, Jobs seems only able to energize himself by being a verbal monster.
There’s Steve Wozniak (uninterestingly acted by Seth Rogen), the technological genius behind Apple, and historically a nice, friendly guy. All Wozniak wants in each of the three parts is to have his work appreciated by Jobs. He begs him to say something nice about the bestselling Apple II, which Jobs refuses to do because he’s not interested in the past. Just give a shout-out to the Apple II team pleads Wozniak. He must as well be talking to a statue.
Also during the build-up to the presentations, John Sculley (an acceptable Jeff Daniels who seems to have been told to look weary) will pop in and out whenever Jobs needs to feel superior to another minion, although in his case, Sculley was the CEO of Apple and the man who fired Jobs, an act he never forgot. Or forgave.
During each part, Jobs will engage with his chief publicist, a human stop-watch and image protector named Joanna Hoffman in the movie, although in reality, she never existed. The character is a composite of a number of people. The usually reliable Kate Winslet plays Hoffman with a Polish accent that she doesn’t have in part one, has in part two, and drifts in and out of in part three. If the movie were better, you could ignore it, but you can’t. It becomes laughable, a game of spot the Middle-European blooper.
This framing device could work if what happens backstage is smart or clever or witty or remotely sounding as if it’s being said by humans. By part three, having heard essentially the same things out of the mouths of Jobs, Wozniak, Sculley, and Hoffman as in parts one and two, you’re to be forgiven if you think the text messages on the iPhone in your pocket are probably more interesting than what you’ve been watching and hearing.
I’ve saved the worst for last. In ever single part, Jobs is confronted by a woman named Chrisann Brennan (acted by Katherine Waterston, air-headed and hippie-like). She and Jobs have a bitter connection, at least to Jobs. Whatever their relationship was like, and in the film it’s not crystal clear how long they were together or if they even meant anything to each other, there is a child, a daughter named Lisa Brennan.
Job refuses to acknowledge that Lisa is his kid. In all three parts, Chrissann and Steve will argue backstage about paternity and child support. It seems, according to Sorkin and director Danny Boyle, that Jobs, worth about $440-million during the course of the period we’re watching, didn’t want to pay anything for Lisa’s upbringing and education.
Essentially, Sorkin and Boyle have made the major focus of their dreary little effort a deadbeat dad. Not Apple, not computers, not vision. But instead, a callow cad who won’t pay a cent to a little girl who believes he is her father. Jobs cruelly states that based on Brennan’s sexual history, 28% of the men in the United States could be Lisa’s daddy.
However, because “Steve Jobs” the movie is such so meandering and unfocused, at the end of each part, and I’m not making this up, Jobs will have a sudden change of heart, or say he was joking, or recant his tedious bellowing and come up with a house, or education money, or, get this, the promise of a device on which a grown-up Lisa can listen to 500 songs. No make that 1,000 songs. No, probably only 500. Jobs doesn’t know. He allegedly just likes playing with people’s minds, even the mind of a child.
Sorkin and Boyle play fast and loose with their concept of the facts, which they found in Walter Isaacson’s biography of Jobs. What kind of writer and director are so devoid of ideas that they have to bridge all three acts with the abuse of a little girl? For what reason? Dramatic effect? At the exact same screen-time as Sorkin and Boyle are playing games, in real-life Jobs did have a wife and other children, elements of a life not even mentioned in the facile movie.
As for director Boyle, his famed hyper-energetic style is non-existent here. He has given himself over to Sorkin’s screenplay, which consists of nothing more than his trademark walking-and-talking pattern of character development. This can work if the characters have interesting things to say, especially if they don’t repeat the same things in three acts over two hours. Keep ‘em moving, and perhaps nobody will notice that no one’s spoken much to enhance or move along the story
You do have to feel sorry for Steve Jobs the human being. First his memory was shredded by the dreadful 2013 film called “Jobs,” in which the tragically unbelievable Ashton Kutcher, desperately trying to “do” drama, gave the life of the Apple guru a transparent, situation-comedy aura.
Now we have “Steve Jobs,” a bland cinematic artifact that steals from a life, not to mention stealing from how director Alejandro Inarritu used his camera backstage in “Birdman.”
If what we see on screen in “Steve Jobs” is what Sorkin and Boyle think are the most interesting aspects of the man, then they don’t know a single thing about him. Certainly nothing worth retelling. And to tell it in such a laborious and fundamentally uninteresting way is an insult to what Apple and Jobs have done.
Sorkin and Boyle seem to believe the cult of Apple exists because Steve Jobs yelled at people and made them feel bad. Hardly.