In “Steve Jobs,” Sorkin Offers Schema Without Reason

Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs (Danny Boyle, 2015)

Aaron Sorkin has made a career writing clever scripts in which characters speak brilliantly conceived (if unrealistically articulate) lines of dialogue in well-structured dramas. Think A Few Good Men, The American President (which led directly to the 7-season television series The West Wing“) and The Social Network. That last one is a perfect model for Steve Jobs, since it concerns a man deemed both an irrefutable genius and problematic human being. Sorkin got the equation just right there, showing us the virtues and vices of Mark Zuckerberg in a world that, though clearly a dramatist’s construct, felt as if it got the essence of the story right … or at the very least made it interesting. Director David Fincher (Gone Girl) moved things along briskly, and a good time was had by all (well, maybe not by Zuckerberg). Unfortunately, in Sorkin’s new script about another flawed technology pioneer, the construct overshadows the story, and we are left wondering why, as represented by this movie, anyone would want to make a movie about Jobs.

Divided into three distinct acts, Steve Jobs is a triptych aiming for a Hieronymus Bosch take on morality that ends up, instead, as a Margaret Keane air-brushed “big eyes” portrait: poster art, in other words, instead of grand painting. There’s no shame in superficiality when that is your intention – some of my favorite movies are dumb pleasures – but when you aim high and fall short, the result is a mess. Or, in this case, a shame, since so many good artists give of their sweat and toil. First, we have Danny Boyle (28 Days Later), the director, usually so deft, who can do nothing with the story but light it dramatically and hope for the best; then, there’s Michael Fassbender (Frank), great as always, who quickly makes you forget that he looks and sounds nothing like Jobs; Kate Winslet (The Reader) plays Joanna Hoffman, Jobs’ loyal assistant, the only person capable of standing up to the mercurial founder of Apple, and she is quite fine, too; Jeff Daniels (“The Newsroom“) is here, as well, as John Sculley, the “man who fired Steve Jobs,” and holds his own. There’s talent to spare, but it doesn’t help the script feel any less schematic.

The three sections each focus on a different product launch, first in 1984, then 1988, and finally in 1998: the original Macintosh; Steve Jobs’ post-Apple venture, the NeXT cube; and his triumphant return with the blue and white iMac. If you know nothing about the man’s life and accomplishments (where have you been the last 40 years?), I recommend Walter Isaacson’s excellent biography, the likewise eponymous Steve Jobs, on which Boyle’s and Sorkin’s film is ostensibly based. The idea of comparing launches makes sense, initially, since Jobs was a master showman, known for putting together impressive introductions to new products. However, what sounds good as an idea doesn’t work in practice, since Sorkin populates each event with the exact same group of people revolving around Jobs, hoping to reveal truths through their changing interactions over time, straining credulity with clunky coincidence. Worse, he pares down Jobs’ personal life to a single relationship, that with his daughter, Lisa, whom he refused to acknowledge as his for many years. That story is worth telling, but it can hardly be the only point of entry into the man’s mind.

I think this may be the worst thing I have ever seen written by Sorkin. Forced, packed with artifice, with the engineering more visible than the design, the film is more PC than Mac. We feel like we’re being lectured to, rather than being shepherded towards something new and fresh. I didn’t like Alex Gibney’s documentary about Jobs, released earlier this year, but by comparison it looks like the far superior film.

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