The Production: 2.5/5
“You know, my mother might be a troubled woman, but what’s your excuse? That’s why I’m not impressed with your story, Dad! It’s that you knew what I was going through and you didn’t do anything about it, and that makes you an unconscionable coward. And not for nothing, but “think” is a verb, all right? Making “different” an adverb. You’re asking people to think differently, and you can talk about the Bauhaus movement and Braun and “Simplicity is Sophistication” and Issey Miyake uniforms, and Bob Dylan lyrics all you want, but that thing – looks like Judy Jetson’s Easy-Bake oven.”
-Lisa Brennan-Jobs (Perla Haney-Jardine) in Steve Jobs (2015)
As a longtime fan of Aaron Sorkin, I had extremely high hopes for Steve Jobs. If anyone had the ability to tackle the brilliance and contradictions of Jobs, it would have to be Sorkin. Certainly he’s shown that with his work on projects all the way from A Few Good Men to The Social Network. But something’s gone very wrong here. That’s not to say that Steve Jobs is a bad movie – just that it never becomes a particularly good one. For about two hours, Steve Jobs and various people from his life stand around and talk – with the talk sessions broken up between three key product launches that mark the milestones of Jobs’ life. There’s simply not enough material in that idea to sustain the movie. The movie has a great director in Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours) with a truly inventive eye. There’s a great cast here – particularly Michael Fassbender as Jobs, Michael Stuhlbarg as Andy Hertzfeld and Kate Winslet as Joanna Hoffman. The sheer firepower of talent in this cast, director and writer is more than enough to flatten the group that attempted and failed to tell the same story in the 2013 movie Jobs. But, again, something’s gone wrong here. The movie just stands still for two hours and very little seems to happen. The characters talk endlessly – something I would normally enjoy in an Aaron Sorkin script. And the problem is, they rarely seem to get anywhere. By the end of the 2 hours, the movie finally discovers one solid moment of humanity in a rooftop scene, but it’s a heck of a long slog to get there.
SPOILERS: The life of Steve Jobs is well-documented, so this movie isn’t about to break new ground on facts nobody’s heard. The real strength of this movie, one would hope, should be in the Aaron Sorkin script, built from Walter Isaacson’s book about Jobs, and also from Sorkin’s extensive research and interviews. So what has Sorkin done here? He’s constructed a three-act play, essentially. It might even be called Aaron Sorkin’s Tragic Comedy of the Life of Steve Jobs. Each act is built around a product rollout that marked a key moment in Jobs’ life. Act I, set in 1984, covers the unveiling of the Macintosh computer. Act II, set in 1988, covers Jobs’ failed release of the NeXT computer, also known as the Cube. Act III, set in 1998, focuses on the return of Jobs to Apple with the rollout of the iMac. And in each of these acts, the people closest to Jobs all arrive to confront him, congratulate him, and generally confound him. There’s a wonderful classic structure here – similar in some ways to the basic idea of the Godfather movies. There’s also one solid character story idea here, and it’s the one major breakthrough that Sorkin has made in the script that the writers of the 2013 Jobs couldn’t understand: the key here is Jobs’ relationship with his daughter Lisa– a daughter he was unable to acknowledge in the first years of her life.
MORE SPOILERS: Of course, Sorkin does play with time and facts here. In reality, Jobs acknowledged Lisa and had her birth certificate appropriately changed around the time she was 9 years old. In this movie, Jobs is unwilling to acknowledge his connection to her until ten years later than that. This makes for that wonderful moment on the rooftop – where Jobs admits that he named the Apple Lisa after her and promises to put 100 songs in her pocket. (and then 1000 songs, and then, well, somewhere between 500 and 1000 songs…) This makes for great dramatic stuff, but it’s not what actually happened. Thankfully for the movie, Michael Fassbender and Perla Haney Jardine (as Lisa) manage to bring enough intensity to the scene to power through the unreality.
YES, MORE SPOILERS: Other than that moment, however, there really isn’t that much that happens over the course of the story here. Time and time again, Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen) begs Jobs to acknowledge the Apple II team, only to be rebuffed. Time and time again, Andy Hertzfeld is browbeaten to death by Jobs. Time and time again, Joanna Hoffman reminds Jobs that he’s going to be late for the latest unveiling. And through it all, everyone talks and talks and talks. Again, this would not be an issue under normal circumstances with Sorkin. His scripts are known for the fast banter, the almost hypnotic rhythms – the regular meter of right jab, right jab, right jab, right jab and then just when you least expect it, the huge left hook. This writing style has been the staple of great Sorkin work from A Few Good Men through the great speeches of the four good seasons of The West Wing to The Social Network. Yes, all the characters sound like they’re brilliant litigators who can sling poetic dialogue at lightning speed while walking down the hall. Yes, there’s a familiar rhythm to all this once you’ve heard it a few times. But it still works when you go back to the older West Wings, or if you look at the other films. Why isn’t it working here? The simple answer is because almost nothing is happening here. In a typical episode of The West Wing, you could have at least three major situations all going on at the same time, with all the characters constantly dancing around each other lyrically and physically. With The Social Network, you have the framework of the lawsuit as well as multiple internal conflicts going back and forth through the story. With A Few Good Men, you’re expecting these guys to speechify – they’re all attorneys. But here? We’re just endlessly waiting for Steve Jobs to go out and take the stage, and we don’t even get to see him do that for much of the time. It’s like being trapped in the back dressing room with Jobs, much as the character seems to feel trapped. The last time I’ve had an experience like this was Barton Fink, and I honestly don’t know which movie drags on longer. There’s even one moment during the second act where Winslet’s Hoffman and Fassbender’s Jobs are about to head out to the stage – but then one of them says “Wait, we need to talk about this some more.” And they sit down and start talking again! I admit at this moment actually shouting at the screen.
SPOILERS CONTINUE: Given that problem, I should acknowledge that the other elements here are all fairly strong. Knowing that he’s working on a 3 Act play, Danny Boyle builds each Act as a distinct moment from each other. Act I is shot on 16mm film, mostly handheld and scored using the crudest of analog computer synthesizer programs. Act II is shot on 35mm film with a lot more stability and scored with a full orchestra. Act III, the most modern of the three, is shot on Arri Alexa digital cameras, and has a digital score. These creative choices help differentiate the Acts, and give the movie a feeling of moving forward in time past the more obvious changes in the characters’ looks. The cast is all quite strong – it really helps to have someone with Fassbender’s talents playing Jobs, and the rest of the ensemble fit nicely into their roles. Seth Rogen is actually stronger here than I would have expected him. Michael Stuhlbarg adds yet another kind of portrayal to his already wide range here. And Kate Winslet pretty much disappears into Joanna Hoffman. These are all strengths and they shouldn’t be discounted.
FINAL SPOILERS: In spite of those strengths, unfortunately, the movie is unable to overcome the problems in the script and achieve anything more than a B, if we are to grade it. There’s simply not enough story, and without that substance, one becomes overwhelmingly aware of the Sorkin style at work. Look at the speech I excerpted right at the top of the review. You can see the build and the rhythm as it goes. You can see the intelligence with which it was written. And you can see the inevitable fake-out just in the last sentence. Now imagine that speech repeated 10 times in the same movie, without a lot of variety. By the end of it, you’ll be ready to climb the walls.
For home video release, Universal has provided a great HD copy of the movie on Blu-ray, and accompanied it with two separate commentary tracks (so that Sorkin and Boyle each get their own) and a 45 minute documentary on the making of the film. The commentaries in particular are quite illuminating. It’s very helpful to watch a scene from the movie and then go back with each commentary to hear the difference in the reactions.
The Blu-ray of Steve Jobs has been released to home theater viewers as of this week. The Blu-ray packaging includes both Blu-ray and SD DVD editions of the movie, along with identical special features. Instructions for downloading a digital copy of each movie are included on an insert in the packaging.
3D Rating: NA
Steve Jobs is presented in a 2.40:1 1080p AVC transfer (avg 34 mbps) that easily shows off the differences between the three modes of filming. Act I looks appropriately grainy (as do the various flashbacks to Jobs’ past in the familiar old garage). Act II looks appropriately dark and smooth. Act III is the digital act, and it has a satisfying sheen to it – not like video but not as smooth as the 35mm second Act. It’s a pleasure to see a director and a cinematographer get to play with the various formats like this – particularly because these variations in look are being driven by the story and aren’t just random changes.
Steve Jobs is presented in an English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix (avg 3.8 mbps, going up to 5.2 mbps in the big scenes), along with English and French DTS 5.1 mixes and an English DVS 2.0 mix. This is a far more active mix than I would have expected, given that the main emphasis of the movie is on Sorkin’s dialogue. But I confess that the music really does drive the mix in many places and there’s a surprising amount of usage of the surrounds for a dialogue-heavy movie.
Special Features: 4/5
Steve Jobs comes with two scene-specific commentaries and a three-part documentary. Between all of these bonuses, the viewer can get a fairly complete look at the making of this movie. All of the bonus features are available both on the Blu-ray and the DVD editions.
Feature Commentary with Director Danny Boyle – Danny Boyle walks the viewer through the movie with this scene-specific commentary that covers pretty much everything about the movie and the filming process. Boyle gets into details about the differences between the various filming processes used for each act, as well as the ways he needed to work with each actor on the project.
Feature Commentary with Writer Aaron Sorkin and Editor Elliot Graham – For this scene-specific commentary, writer Aaron Sorkin watches the movie with editor Elliot Graham, describing the many choices made along the way to either add material or remove material. There is an initial discussion about the choice to add some vintage material of Arthur C. Clarke in a computer room back in the 1960s as an introduction to the movie, which can serve as a counterpoint to Boyle’s discussion of the same material in his own commentary. Sorkin openly discusses many lines and situations that were deleted along the way, and why this was done. There were apparently a number of deleted scenes and lines that have not been included on this disc.
Inside Jobs: The Making of Steve Jobs (3 Parts, 44:11 Total, 1080p) – This three-part documentary covers the entire making of the movie. Most of the documentary consists of talking-head interview material, conducted against a stark white background. Some on-set footage and some clips from the movie are included as well for emphasis. Danny Boyle and Aaron Sorkin lay out the basics of the movie, including the production decisions made along the way. The movie was shot in three sections, each with a different style of filming and with a rehearsal period before each block. Several cast members also talk about the discoveries they made during the rehearsal periods, as well as what they learned from talking to the real people who they were portraying in the movie, where possible.
DVD Edition – The DVD edition of the movie is included in the packaging. It presents the movie in standard definition with a 2:40:1 anamorphic transfer and a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix (@448 kbps), along with the same commentaries and documentary available on the Blu-ray edition. The DVD edition also includes French and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 mixes and the English 2.0 DVS track.
Digital and Ultraviolet Copies – Instructions for obtaining digital and Ultraviolet copies of the 2D edition of the movie are available on an insert in the packaging.
The film and special features are subtitled in English, French and Spanish. The usual pop-up menu is present, along with a complete chapter menu. I note that the disc menus are presented in a faded off-white, in keeping with the Apple and Steve Jobs theme.
Steve Jobs is an incredibly frustrating movie. It has all the elements to be an amazing success story but instead winds up being an incredibly boring one. A strong cast and a strong director are saddled with a surprisingly ordinary script in which very little happens. Nevertheless, the Blu-ray features great picture and sound quality, and there is a generous array of bonus features for the viewer to peruse.