The Films of 2015: Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs is about two men who are too clever for their own good.  The first is Steve Jobs, who, as played by Michael Fassbender in a witty, sharp, slightly campy performance, is a man you love to hate—vain, uncompromising, egomaniacal, cold.  He makes unreasonable demands on his staff, takes credit for other people’s work, and generally drives everyone around him crazy.  Over the course of the film he’s compared to Napoleon, William Randolph Hearst, and both God and the devil.  His tragic flaws are misappropriation and the refusal to acknowledge others: he’s haunted (and hunted) throughout the film by his former collaborator Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogan), who pleads with Jobs to publicly credit his contributions to Jobs’ work, and by his tightly-wound ex-girlfriend Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston), who demands that he assume responsibility for their daughter Lisa.  The film takes place at three different points in Jobs’ career, as he prepares to unveil the Macintosh (1984), the NeXT (1988), and the iMac (1998), and has the feel of a backstage drama.

The other larger-than-life figure at the center of Steve Jobs is, of course, screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, who sinks his teeth into this material with gusto.  (Danny Boyle’s directorial credit notwithstanding, this is every ounce An Aaron Sorkin Film.)  Structured like a three-act play, the film is literate, snappy, and, I’ll admit, fun to listen to.  Fassbender and Kate Winslet, who plays Jobs’ dogged assistant Joanna Hoffman, volley their lines back and forth like a pair of tennis pros.  It doesn’t matter much that Fassbender doesn’t resemble the real-life Jobs (he’s so typically Aryan that when it’s revealed that Jobs’ biological father was from Syria you have to suppress a laugh of disbelief).  Fassbender isn’t playing the real-life Jobs anyway; he’s playing an interpretation of him that is, like the entire film, basically theatrical.  

Fassbender and Winslet are exemplary, as is Michael Stuhlbarg in a supporting role as another of Jobs’ long-suffering lackeys.  They know how to breathe life into Sorkin’s dialogue, which can sometimes feel painfully convoluted.  But more egregious is Sorkin’s trademark weakness for cheap pathology.  As Sorkin writes him, Jobs has a God complex and a Napoleon complex; he pushes his daughter away because of abandonment issues from having been given up for adoption; he sublimates his loneliness and fear of intimacy into his work.  The movie tells us over and over again for two hours that he was brilliant, but a prick—but maybe also, as it turns out, a decent guy underneath it all.  I can’t understand Sorkin’s attraction to figures like Jobs, Billy Beane, and Mark Zuckerberg, who, however talented and innovative they may have been, remain fundamentally un-cinematic personalities.  Sorkin repeatedly sets himself up for failure by constructing dramatic apparatuses around vacuums.  He’s a cerebral artist who gravitates toward subject matter that is itself cerebral, mathematical, procedural, which wouldn’t be such a problem if he also didn’t try to find the humanity in it.  Whenever he tries to explain human behavior, he fails; he relies on the same kind of pop Freudianism that hack Hollywood screenwriters used in the ’40s and ’50s.  I can't help but think that Sorkin would be better off making computers instead of screenplays.

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