Think Different

In “Steve Jobs,” Danny Boyle and Aaron Sorkin stick to the Hollywood script.

Michael Fassbender as Steve Jobs (via Universal Pictures)

Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs is being widely lauded at the moment for its unconventional structure, and bold cinematic choices. In The New York Times, for instance, A.O. Scott calls it “formally audacious, intellectually energized entertainment, a powerful challenge to the lazy conventions of Hollywood storytelling.”

And in an overview of the largely positive critical response to the film, The Telegraph writes:

Rather than following a conventional biographical structure, the Aaron Sorkin-scripted film, which also stars Kate Winslet and Seth Rogan, is divided into three separate acts, set several years apart, and each following the launch of a different Apple product.

It’s clear many are impressed with the way the story is told — but how innovative is the film truly? All things considered, how much does it differ from the biopics of men that came before it?

Sorkin and Boyle certainly add a twist by condensing the entire film into those three set-pieces, but in other ways, they tell the kind of three-act story we’ve seen many times before. Steve Jobs is still a narrative about a straight man’s struggle with fatherhood, work, and “how to be a good man.” In that sense it shares more in common with Birdman than those long takes backstage, and it isn’t that far removed from more straight-forward biopics like A Beautiful Mind.

Boyle’s film arrives at a very familiar place in the end, and in many ways, makes Sorkin’s script for The Social Network — a more critical study of the culture which birthed Facebook — look more daring in retrospect.

As The Hollywood Reporter describes it, all the supporting characters this time around are ultimately there to help idolize the man, the myth, the legend:

The specifics differ in each case, but they all boil down to the desire for acknowledgment of their value from a difficult and withholding man, one famous for abusing his underlings, keeping them guessing about where they stand and rejecting their ideas only to later claim them as his own.

It’s true Jobs is not depicted as a saint — Michael Fassbender does a fine job eliciting moments of disgust — and yet the camera certainly adores him (he always looks great). And even though Scott, in his review for the Times, says the film has a “fascinating residue of ambivalence” regarding Jobs’ work, it still leaves us marveling at the fact that “the world most of us live in is the one he made.”

Of course it’s a biopic based on a biography written by Walter Isaacson, so de-centering Jobs might not make a whole lot of sense at first — but it wouldn’t have been unprecedented either. Last year Ava DuVernay made a memorable film about Martin Luther King, Jr. by focusing on his team as much as him. And Todd Haynes fascinating 2007 film about the life of Bob Dylan, I’m Not There, had six different actors portray the musical icon, including Cate Blanchett and a Black 13-year-old, Marcus Carl Franklin.

So imagine a Steve Jobs where two acts were told from the perspective of someone other than him. Or what if the film took inspiration from Virginia Woolf, and pictured what might have changed if Patricia Ann Jobs was the one to launch the iMac, not her brother?

Moreover, the German-Irish Fassbender plays Jobs, even as, in one short scene, Boyle reminds us that Jobs was Arab-American, and he was aware of it (his biological father is from Syria, while his mother is of German descent). And though Jobs was able to pass as white, that’s not the case for all Syrian-Americans. A bolder film might have cast someone less conventional-looking in this role, and perhaps imagined what the discovery of his identity meant to Jobs. Or at least how the perception of his race impacted his life.

Instead, the subject is brushed over.

The irony is that the film reminds us constantly that the Apple leader was obsessed with innovation, creative design, revolution — he wanted the world to think different, after all. But for all its bells and whistles, Steve Jobs, as a movie, isn’t really all that different. It’s a movie made by men which is determined to make its audience marvel at the troubled genius of yet another man.

And by choosing that lens for its camera, it ultimately limits its view of its subject.

Because, as Michael Phillips at the Chicago Tribune writes, this movie “has everything going for it except a sense of Jobs’ inner life.” By avoiding a deeper portrait of the world in which he lived, it’s unable to provide much new insight at all.