Steve Jobs Review or: How Danny Boyle & Aaron Sorkin Revolutionized the Biopic
Ten years ago this month a movie about Johnny Cash named Walk the Line opened across America to the tune of $22 million. It quadrupled its budget, won Reese Witherspoon an Oscar, launched Joaquin Phoenix briefly into the stratosphere (before he faked both insanity and a rap career to sabotage his A-list status), spawned a parody-film (Dewey Cox), and firmly, for the first time in its sporadic history, established the biopic as a legitimate box office heavyweight. Movies like Ray and The Doors made biopics into oscar-winners and cult-favorites, but Walk the Line was the first true blockbuster biopic of the 21st century.
That last thing, though, had a downside. Studios started green-lighting biopics at breakneck, “quick-where’s-my-pen” pace. Historical figures from Abraham Lincoln to Eazy-E got the treatment to varying results. Emilio Estevez wants to direct a movie about Robert Kennedy? Sure. Johnny Depp wants to mail-in a performance as John Dillinger? Why not? And who could forget the instantly forgettable Gifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story starring Cuba Gooding Jr.? Okay, that was a made-for-TV movie, but how could I resist a Ben Carson joke in 2015?
Another thing Walk the Line established was a formula for biopics that Hollywood would beat into the ground like a tent-stake on a bad day throughout the next decade. It took Cash’s 40-plus year music career and wrapped it around his admittedly adorable love story with wife June Carter Cash. Luckily for both the movie and its audience, the movie was in the hands of a brilliant director, James Mangold, who mixed live-performances with off-stage drama (if you’ve never seen his follow-up, the oft-forgotten Cristian Bale/Russel Crowe Western 3:10 to Yuma, this writer suggests you rectify that immediately). Subsequent biopics, like the 2014 James Brown film Get on Up or the recent Straight Outta Compton, suffer from trying to recreate this formula. They inevitably drag, they overload the audience with an overwhelming amount of information, and they leave most actors clutching at straws to figure out where in the character’s life they are.
But Steve Jobs, from the brain of Writer Aaron Sorkin, the heart of Director Danny Boyle, and the iron-clad testicular-force of Michael Fassbender (who plays Jobs), breaks all of those rules like a kid suffering from severe sugar withdrawals. Instead of whimpering across the starting line with a dull, supposedly-prophetic scene of Jobs’ childhood and lightning-cutting to an important moment of his adulthood, Steve Jobs bursts through the gate like a thoroughbred on Russian steroids, dropping you in the middle of the Mac launch and never pausing to make sure you’re comfortable.
The dialogue from Sorkin is thunderous and quick, a storm that appears out of nowhere and won’t subside. Jobs wrestles technical issues with the Macintosh’s OS, extolls his hatred of Time magazine to his confidant and marketing executive Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet matching wits and doubling Fassbender’s vigor with her own ovaries-of-steel performance), meets with his baby-mama and estranged 5-year-old daughter (whom Jobs denied paternity of despite a DNA test), and chats with Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak (played with shocking impact by lovable schlub Seth Rogen), all before going on stage and unveiling the computer to the world.
The film then becomes a 3-act-play, using news footage and press conferences to bridge the gap between the launch of the Macintosh, its failure due to overpricing, Jobs’ departure from Apple, and his founding of the NeXT computer company. Placed at the NeXT launch, the confrontations come at an unrelenting, hysterically tense pace again in the 2nd act, causing the film the feel breathtakingly claustrophobic in a good way, portraying a genius confined by his own hubris and ego. We, as an audience, have to weigh the importance of his innovations against his personal failings as he conducts the symphony of chaos around him.
In its 3rd-act the narrative reaches a fever pitch of emotional resonance through a series of built-up, frustrated confrontations. All of the actors deliver in true climactic fashion, and Fassbender handles each with the passion of an unrequited madman who doesn’t know how to please anyone but himself. Each confrontation is not without its frustrations and imperfections, in the way that human beings rarely wrap-up their own life stories with a perfect bow. It’s cringe-inducing, awe-inspiring, and ultimately heartfelt human behavior on a grand scale, showcasing the simultaneously domineering and pioneering spirit of both Jobs and the film itself.
Steve Jobs will garner multiple-award nominations despite its dismal box-office performance ($17 million to-date against a budget of $30-million, although that figure should certainly see an awards-season re-release boost). But it will also stand as a unique piece of art that redefines and reshapes the biopic. Steve Jobs is a triumph not because of its subject, but because of the way it circumvents the flaws of contemporary filmmaking. It doesn’t try to cover too much of the technology God’s life and it doesn’t trip over itself following the tiresome tropes of the genre. Instead of mimicry it innovates, turning the biopic into a nonstop, unflinching portrayal of 3 key events in the life of its protagonist.
Steve Jobs changes the game for every movie in its field moving forward, showing that innovative ideas can encompass everything that came before them and produce something greater than the sum of its parts, something that takes existing technology and reaches for something bigger than itself. Steve Jobs himself would beam at its originality.