I think "Steve Jobs", the new film from director Danny Boyle ("Slumdog Millionaire") and writer Aaron Sorkin ("The Social Network") is suffering from too much hype. It can't - and isn't - living up to it.
I have to admit, I was more than a little surprised as the film began and I quickly realized what the filmmakers were going for. The biggest successes for both Boyle and Sorkin are films that made their subject matter soar. In "Slumdog Millionaire", Boyle showed us a side of Indian society that we didn't know existed and made us feel as though we were a part of the story. And Aaron Sorkin made a story about webpage developers seem exciting - I feel like I need to add "For Goodness Sake" because it seems like an amazing accomplishment - I think most would simply run away from the idea because it just seems that daunting. One took a large story and made us feel included, the other took a smaller story and made it bigger.
With "Steve Jobs", the opposite seems to have been accomplished. They have taken the life of a man with great vision and ambition and made the story seem smaller. I get the reason for this. I do. They want us to feel the confinement, the claustrophobia Jobs must have felt because he felt alone, he felt restricted and wanted to get his ideas and his products out to the public. But the way they accomplish this is extremely old fashioned and doesn’t feel entirely successful.
Jobs (Michael Fassbender), who created Apple Computers with Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen) in their garage, is preparing for the launch of the Mac computer in 1984. He paces backstage at a medium sized theater, nervously pushing lead programmer Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg, "A Serious Man", "Trumbo") to get the computer to say "Hello". The head of marketing, Joanna (Kate Winslet) runs around trying to keep Jobs on track while dealing with his various other 'problems'. These 'problems' include Chrisann (Katherine Waterston), the mother of Jobs' child, Lisa, who arrives pleading for more support, John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), the chairman of the board, who arrives to give his support for the launch and Wozniak, who really wants Jobs to acknowledge the Apple II team in his presentation because he feels their work led to the creation of the Mac. Joanna also has her own need regarding Jobs - she wants him to downplay the sales projections for the new computer. And all the while, a reporter from GQ, Joel Pforzheimer (John Ortiz) hovers in the background, taking notes for an article about Jobs and the Mac. Each of these people floats into Jobs radar and has an exchange with him, causing him to become even more agitated, which in turn causes Joanna to jump into overdrive to keep her boss in check and on time. As each makes theirselves known, they get a few moments of his time, a few minutes to plead their case, a few moments for Jobs to respond, before the next person comes in.
What this format does is allow Fassbender the opportunity to have a lot of moments in the spotlight. And he does a great job of presenting Jobs in many different lights. He is intensely loyal, an autocrat, incredibly insecure, independent and a visionary who doesn't listen to opposing viewpoints. Basically, each of these traits is presented in exchanges with each of the other central characters. Fassbender really goes for it and you can imagine him taking the screenplay and literally taking a bite out of it, to sink his teeth into it. It is the best work Fassbender has ever done, but also the most showy. It also comes close to being the most over-the-top, which is saying something when someone is known for playing Magneto in the new "X-Men" films, a role that primarily requires him to stand and raise his fingers in a Shakespearean way. I liked the performance a lot, but never once forgot that I was watching a performance.
And Boyle and Sorkin don't really help Fassbender disappear into his character.
Even if you haven't seen a live play performed on stage, you probably know what it involves, the characteristics. The first is a three-act structure. Act One introduces the characters and the conflicts. Act Two explores those conflicts in more detail. Act Three brings the resolution, good or bad. "Steve Jobs" does little to hide the three-act structure inherent in a play, But because this film is based on a book, the fact the movie so closely resembles a play is a bit of a mystery to me. Usually, when a play is adapted to film, the filmmakers go to great pains to 'open it up', they add characters, conflicts, film on location to give it a larger feel, blur the breaks between acts. In "Steve Jobs", Boyle and Sorkin have taken a book and created a filmed play. The story runs across three Product Launches, presumably three very significant moments in Jobs' life. Act One, the Product Launch for the Mac, the beginning of what is now Apple. Act Two, the launch of the NeXT Computer System. Act Three, the launch of the iMac. Because of this three-act structure, and the inherent staging of the characters throughout, Fassbender's portrayal comes across as more stagey and theatrical.
After a brief montage of newsclips detailing the sales of the Mac, Act Two begins. Jobs is getting ready to launch the NeXT Computer and soon reveals his true strategy to Joanna, a strategy that makes him appear even more Shakespearean.
This is also the bit when each of the conflicts between Jobs and the other characters comes to light. In a stage play, each of the characters has a brief period of interaction with the lead while everyone else takes a breather offstage. In general, most plays have two or three characters on stage at one time. If a new character enters, one generally exits. This is exactly what happens in "Steve Jobs". Again, the staging just seems strange based on the previous works of each involved.
In the second act, some of the conflicts involve business that happened after the first act, so Boyle uses very brief flashbacks to help illustrate these moments. But it does little to take the film away from the stage play framework.
Kate Winslet fares the best of the supporting actors. Joanna is basically the right hand of Jobs, so she is always around him, nervously hovering. And because she is always around him, she knows him and acts as a sometimes successful conscience. Seth Rogen fares the worse because Wozniak is presented as a character with only one goal, to get the team behind the Apple II acknowledged. Each time he pops up, that's what he wants.
With each act, the Product Launch also moves to a newer, bigger venue. But each is still a theater with a stage, making the filmed play aspect of this movie even more overt.
And because each of the acts is set in a theater, the characters are confined to these locations. So each character has to talk about their problems, giving Jobs the chance to argue or discuss this with them, before they have the opportunity to respond. Talk, talk, talk, talk.
I love to go to plays and watch actors perform on stage. It is a thrilling, visceral experience because a good performance can make you feel the energy flowing from the actors.
But a filmed play is a different experience altogether. When I go to a movie, I want to be transported to a new place, a new time, to see something I wouldn't have the opportunity to see. A good film makes you feel like you are part of it. And "Steve Jobs" only makes us privy to conversations. And some of these conversations are interesting. Some are predictable. But none are all that memorable.