This past weekend Steve Jobs, directed by Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire) and written by Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network) expanded nationally. The following contains spoilers. You have been warned.
James: Before we get into the beast of Steve Jobs, I’d like to start on a subject we don’t cover very often: box office. Steve Jobs opened wide this past weekend after two successful weeks in limited release and didn’t play particularly well. Before we get into the movie and what we felt about it artistically, why in your view, did Steve Jobs have difficulty in finding a wider audience, at least initially?
Tyler: I think it has a lot to do with word-of-mouth. This film had a much shorter limited-run than we usually get. Living in Chicago, I usually don’t get to see a lot of films for a bit after their limited New York/Los Angeles opening, yet this time I still got to see the movie a week before its wide release. I think people might have also been disappointed when they heard this wasn’t a conventional biopic in the same vein of the previously released Jobs or even Sorkin’s other tech biopic, The Social Network. Also, the lead actor is played by Michael Fassbender who we both know very well but most know him as the new Magneto or the “evil slave owner” in 12 Years a Slave. Steve Jobs‘ less than stellar opening box office has also led me to reflect on what I have told people about the movie, especially when it comes to answers to “How was it?” Finally, as happened last year with Selma, I think the criticisms about the historical accuracy of the movie also hurt it. What do you think?
James: Timing and release dates probably did play a large part, but you mentioned The Social Network right off the bat and I think that may be even more key. The previous Sorkin-scripted take on a tech/media titan was a film, I think, that plays on a larger, more accessible scale- one that’s easy to give a simple take of (it’s about the birth of Facebook), whereas Steve Jobs is heightened and a bit mad and rather operatic in trying to dissect not really who Jobs himself was but more the myth of of the Apple powerhouse. It’s bold and underlined filmmaking and I think something that just probably plays better to art-house crowds than perhaps a mass audience. That being said, I absolutely loved it and it’s already near the top of my favorite films of the year. What’s your take?
Tyler: I’m a bit less enthusiastic than you are about the film mainly in that I felt my expectations were met but not exceeded. I got what I wanted in terms of excellent performances across the board with actors bouncing often excellent Sorkin dialogue off each other. I also thought the structure was well executed but I found it lacking from a filmmaking perspective, especially since Danny Boyle (Trance) directed the movie. To borrow an idea Apple adopted thanks to Jobs, I was got what I was looking for rather than given something I didn’t know I wanted.
James: It’s a far more difficult film than I was expecting, which perhaps I was pleasantly surprised by. We will probably delve a bit deeper into the performances (the one thing, I think, most can agree are terrific) a little later, but I’m wondering what you felt was missing in the filmmaking. Not to go back to The Social Network again, but Sorkin and director David Fincher complimented one another to such a tee, that at times, I felt the movie was almost too immaculate and polished (not a slight on the movie, which is brilliant). Based on prior work, Sorkin and Boyle seem rather at odds with one another aesthetically, but managed to come together to form a rigorous, complicated portrait that made me, in the end, feel both Sorkin and Boyle were perhaps more versatile than I first imagined. In short, it’s imperfectly perfect.
Tyler: I think a lot of that has to do with the structure, which I understand I just complimented. I haven’t read The Accidental Billionaires which served as the source material for The Social Network or the Walter Isaacson biography on which Steve Jobs is based but I imagine the material for The Social Network was translated more or less directly from book to script. I’m sure Sorkin took liberties with structure there but he clearly did more with Steve Jobs. I’m all for that considering its the writer’s job to make us give a damn about what we’re seeing but this time around, the film felt very much like built around dialogue rather than fitting a style of dialogue into a style of filmmaking. I never once felt like this was a “Danny Boyle film” and whether or not you or any other audience member acknowledges the auteur theory, I think they can certainly find a common energy in the likes of Boyle’s Trainspotting, Slumdog Millionaire or 127 Hours. The energy I got of the movie, came from the dialogue and the writing.
James: Without question, Sorkin is the “auteur” here. Steve Jobs feels like the ultimate Sorkin experience- the whole movie is walking and talking, yet it think Boyle does some of his finest work here nonetheless. The film is basically a three act play (each act is set at a different product launch through the course of Jobs’ career) and yet there’s such an urgency and frantic pace throughout that, at times, I felt like I was watching an action film. Boyle’s style (which I’m a little hot and cold on) is diluted for sure, but there’s still a heightened mania present that’s not something you can really get down on a page.
Tyler: I usually agree with you on that last point but when Sorkin writes a movie and actors read a Sorkin script I think they have a general idea of the energy they will bring to their characters. As I said before, the structure makes sense for Sorkin’s writing. We have heard countless criticisms of the film from those who knew Jobs, saying he was never this abrasive. I’m sure that’s true but I also imagine he was likely his most abrasive in the hour leading up to one of his presentations which allows for palpable conflict in each act. Not to constantly compare this to The Social Network but with that film, I felt that Sorkin wrote for these characters at different states of tension whereas here, they are constantly at 11.
James: The Social Network (likely to the end of time) will always come up in the breadth of Steve Jobs, so that’s that. You brought up something I wanted to get into on terms of the accuracy of the movie. There’s already been countless hectoring about the embellishments the film makes. I think it’s fair to assume that Sorkin wasn’t interested in really trying to be set in stone about anything here- clearly events didn’t pan out in reality as they do in the movie. Did that bother you? Were there moments in the film that stuck out with the thought, “Well that couldn’t have happened like that?”
Tyler: It didn’t matter to me one bit. Drama is conflict so I knew Steve Jobs would be heightened. Of course, I knew that Jobs’ daughter and her mother weren’t present before every presentation. Even if they tried to be, I’m sure they wouldn’t be let in the theaters. I also figured that John Sculley (Jeff Daniels) wouldn’t be backstage for The NeXT presentation because it wouldn’t make sense from a business perspective. None of that mattered though because the film is compelling. The movie has got me thinking a lot about “dramatic truth” vs. “actual truth” and in the case of the fiction I consume, dramatic truth always takes precedent for me. I understand that there is concern that a text, particularly a film, will be consumed by more people and often represent those events because they’re part of the popular culture but it’s all about understanding the difference between interpretation and actual events.
James: I wholeheartedly agree. Traditional biopics (not that I would even constitute this a biopic in the first place) are one of the least favorites genres, so that Sorkin decided to throw everything in the pot here (and then out the window), for me makes this a masterfully audacious and absolutely fascinating sit. Besides, there’s already the bio of Steve Jobs out there in the form that cruddy Ashton Kutcher film from a couple of years ago.
Tyler: That film which was made with the life rights, whereas Steve Jobs was made with the rights to the Isaacson biography used as the sole source material; Sorkin has said in interviews that people should read that for a full history of Jobs and Apple. Moving on to performances, I think we both agree that Michael Fassbender is the stand-out, to no surprise as he’s been excellent in everything so far. I’m curious as to what was your number two performance?
James: That’s way too hard a question. Unquestionably, Fassbender is terrific and gives one of the best performances of his career (which is saying quite a lot) and makes a neat parlor trick considering he looks nothing like Jobs. Number two probably shifts from scene to scene: Jeff Daniels (a Sorkin alum from The Newsroom) is great as Sculley and matches Fassbender in that insanely edited stand-off sequence (set in two different time periods) in the second act. Michael Stuhlbarg is great and gets one of the best line readings in the film early on when his Andy Hertzfeld drolly calls out Jobs on his God complex. Then there’s Kate Winslet, who plays Jobs’ professional confidante Joanna Hoffman. She’s incredible too. So, that’s a really long-winded way of saying that I don’t think there’s an answer to that question.
Tyler: I agree with you on Winslet and Stuhlbarg. I also want to make sure we mention Seth Rogen as Steve Wozniak. We have both said that we really appreciated the film’s unconventional structure but Rogen’s performance is the one thing that made me miss elements from traditional biopics if only so Fassbender and Rogen could further explore their relationship and we could get more of him. Winslet’s Hoffman served as Job’s conscience throughout the film but I really felt like Rogen’s performance was its heart and soul. The film tries to give that role to Lisa, Job’s daughter, towards the film’s end. My only other true criticism of the film is that the through-line of their relationship felt awkwardly rushed.
James: Rogen is strong as well (he aces his monologue at the end where he preaches to Jobs that “you can be decent and gifted at the same time”) and is probably the most marginalized due to the structure of the film. Maybe many years from now, a traditional bio of Woz and Jobs can be made correctly (outside of the Kutcher nonsense)– hopefully many, many years from now considering there’s been two features and documentary on Jobs in the last couple of years. Yet, at the same time, I feel like I got enough of Woz (and Rogen), even if it was in bite-sized morsels. Jobs was clearly a complicated person and I feel the movie got the essence of key relationships. I’d argue however perhaps the strongest relationship in the movie is between Jobs and Hoffman- there’s such an innate understanding and sense of history in how Fassbender and Winslet play off one another that I felt like that (strictly platonic) relationship was the most powerful and poignant in the entire film.
Tyler: While I loved both Winslet and Fassbender’s performances as well as the scenes between them, I couldn’t help but look at their relationship through the lens of it being a recurring theme of Sorkin’s work where a brilliant man who begrudgingly lets his guard down for a women he works with. I don’t take issue with that relationship in and of itself but I was distracted by the fact that it runs through most of Sorkin’s work. It’s my smallest complaint about the film because I loved all the pieces but it did keep me from being as enthusiastic about it as you were.
James: The “behind every great man…” is a Sorkin trademark and I see how that could come up here. Perhaps it has more to do with Winslet’s performance, but I felt both Jobs and Hoffman thought of one another as equals despite that fact that he was the one with the name. Perhaps one day, we can also get a great movie that tells her story all. In the end, Steve Jobs is a lot of movie. Opinions may vary, but it’s certainly not boring.