Film protagonists come in all shapes and sizes. They can be brave and heroic, timid but kind, or even egotistical monsters. Steve Jobs, as portrayed in the Danny Boyle film of the same name, certainly belongs in that last category, but the depths of his rottenness almost demand a subsection all to themselves. Many of the best movies of the last several years, including The Social Network, There Will Be Blood, and The Wolf of Wall Street, focused on an individual who proved easy to revile, but for my money, this is something different altogether, a brand of sustained, unstoppable meanness without peer. As such, Steve Jobs becomes a litmus test of sorts, seeking to discover just how awful you can paint a protagonist before an audience simply loses interest.
Michael Fassbender stars as the movie's namesake, and plays him as a whirling dervish of entitlement and spite. As penned by Oscar winner Aaron Sorkin, the flick is divided into three distinct acts, each lasting about 40 minutes, and all taking place backstage during a new product launch. We meet the Apple founder in 1984, as he frantically attempts to perfect the presentation of the Macintosh 128K while a plethora of personal matters seek to derail him. Next, we're off to 1988, where the recently disgraced mogul launches a new brand all his own, and is forced to suffer through a nearly identical parade of interpersonal drama. The film's final chapter features the introduction of the imac, and while things have changed at Apple, our 'hero' still struggles to muster anything resembling heroics.
Steve Jobs has two very obvious, very recent spiritual filmic siblings, and neither comparison is flattering. The intensely claustrophobic setting of behind-the-curtains mania immediately calls to mind last year's Best Picture winner Birdman, and while it would be unfair to expect any modern cinematographer to reach the dizzying heights of visionary cameraman Emmanuel Lubezki, the film suffers from such a clear parallel in the field of backstage visual zest. The other, of course, is The Social Network, both films having been penned by the unmistakable Sorkin, and boasting prickly main characters responsible for some of the most popular technological creations of the internet era. The issue here is obvious; The Social Network is a masterpiece, and Steve Jobs... well... isn't.
To my mind, much of the blame rests at the feet of the director. Boyle, a hugely talented, Oscar winning filmmaker in his own right, makes for a strange match with this source material. His films tend to lean heavily on surrealism, mania, and a kaleidoscopic array of colors, and while Steve Jobs occasionally permits the auteur to employ many of his favorite tricks, the film at large is essentially one endless conversation. The moments that include literal motion prove genuinely exciting, but whenever characters are locked in a room for an extended period, Boyle and cinematographer Alwin H. Küchler start to feel out of their depths, and often turn to Daniel Pemberton effective score to communicate the intensity of the moment. It doesn't help that Elliot Graham's editing is almost always just a beat too slow; sequences stuffed with rapid-fire dialogue often trail off at their conclusions, various jokes miss that could have hit with the aid of a sharper cut, and the scenes that employ cross-cutting between multiple time periods are frequently confusing.
It's easy to understand why any group of filmmakers would have such a hard time adapting the virtuoso verbiage of a Sorkin screenplay, but David Fincher certainly knew how when he made The Social Network. That film was mercilessly fast, propelled by the miraculous work of editors Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall, and yet none of the individual story elements ever got lost in the shuffle. All of this to say, Fincher and his team are much better suited for this type of thing, which would seem like a random and pointless statement if it weren't for his previous attachment to this very project. Some of the demerits must be assigned to Sorkin, whose script both fails to elaborate on what exactly makes Jobs so special, and mismanages the film's emotional fulcrum, but I can't help but think Fincher would have figured out a way around those problems. Boyle treats his words with too much reverence, and seems to take his hands of the wheel where Fincher would have been more likely to hone in on the important details, and craft the film beyond what was on the page.
What he wouldn't have been able to do, however, is get a better performance out of Michael Fassbender. A mortal lock for a Best Actor nomination at this year's Academy Awards, Fassbender morphs both his voice and movements into the perfect visage of the late icon, and rattles off Sorkin's words with dazzling aplomb. If there's a better english-speaking thespian alive in the world today, I have yet to encounter them. His work absolutely towers over his co-stars, who offer surprisingly mixed results from scene-to-scene; Kate Winslet struggles to maintain her accent, Seth Rogen is both stiff and underutilized, and Jeff Daniels, as always, is Jeff Daniels. It's the lesser-known actors, such as Michael Stuhlbarg, Katherine Waterston, and all three actresses who play Jobs' daughter Lisa, who manage to escape Fassbender's enormous shadow, and deliver memorable performances.
As such, the flick is not without its merits, and many individual scenes stand on their own as some of the year's best filmmaking, but there's an unescapable feeling of wasted potential. At one point in the movie, Jobs remarks that every product launch seems to include a slew of individuals letting him know how they really feel, and he's not half wrong. While the movie's triptych structure ensures that we're not slogging through another run-of-the-mill biopic, it also renders it repetitive, and makes Jobs' nastiness even more difficult to abide. He certainly doesn't commit atrocities on the level of two out of the three protagonists listed in the first paragraph, but he lacks the emotional complexity and occasional merriment that made the others easier to stomach. Much like the Macintosh 128K, Steve Jobs is a good idea in need of a tune-up, and perhaps a little more time spent in the development stage. Nearly every thought the film has is inspired, but just as many feel only partially formed. Fassbender is worth the price of admission by himself, but in the words of Winslet's Joanna Hoffman, "I'm begging you to manage expectations."