Steve Jobs: Perfect Balance, by Tyler Smith
The problem with most biopics is an inability to balance the different aspects of the subject’s life. Too often, the director will emphasize the character’s strengths to such an extent that they seem flawless. This distances us from the character, as nobody can genuinely relate to somebody that appears perfect. On the other hand, it isn’t unheard of for a director to focus so much on the faults of the subject that we eventually forget why we’re watching the movie in the first place. Instead of being unable to empathize, we are unwilling. And so we are often left with films that either canonize or condemn their subject, without ever really getting across the true humanity of it, where the positives and negatives exist simultaneously. Thankfully, Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs manages to achieve that balance to such a rare degree, I felt like I was really watching something special.
Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple and an all-around visionary, is such a ripe subject for a biopic that there are already several that have been made. Pirates of Silicon Valley and Jobs, along with a recent documentary and even a parody, all attempt to tell the story of a flawed, complicated genius as he revolutionized the computer industry, and the world. In fact, Jobs’ life is so well-documented, I wondered exactly why this new film was necessary. Within a few minutes, I realized that not only was this particular telling of Jobs’ story necessary, it renders all others irrelevant.
The first thing that jumps out is the structure of the film. Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin combines two different approaches to hypnotic effect. Most biopics will tell the story of the subject’s whole life, employing montage and old age makeup to transition from one period to another. Some biopics, however, pick a specific time in the subject’s life and use it as a stand-in for their larger story. Films like Lincoln and Capote do this, managing to tell us more about these men’s overall lives and character by exploring a pivotal moment in their history than by trying to fit in every major moment of their lives.
I very much prefer the latter approach. Steve Jobs does this, but does it three times. The film can be very clearly split into three acts, each one consisting of the stressful 45 minutes before the launch of a new product. During these tense moments, Steve has conversations with his friends, his assistants, his partners, and his family. Each character is like a plate that Steve needs to keep spinning, and his exasperation is palpable. All he wants to do is launch his product and change the world, but these pesky relational obligations keep getting in the way.
This is undoubtedly how Steve Jobs approached life. Often described as the “big picture guy”, he has little patience (and, in some cases, very little ability) to deal with the small details like maintaining a family or restoring broken relationships. This dilemma is hardly new to the biopic genre, but Danny Boyle’s manic pacing doesn’t merely show us Steve’s frustration, but puts us right in the middle of it. His stress quickly becomes ours.
In doing this, the film makes it clear that this is not going to be a “warts and all” type of film. After all, if Sorkin and Boyle wanted to make us hate Steve Jobs, they wouldn’t go to all the trouble of making us empathize with him. No, this film is much more interested in getting to the bottom of how it was possible for such a visionary to also be such an insufferable monster at times.
Right and left, we see Steve refusing to acknowledge the role that others have played in his life, even going so far as to deny his own fathering of an ex-girlfriend’s daughter. Such things are about looking backwards, and that is just not who Steve is. He is all about looking into the future, not dwelling in the past; if this means ignoring the pain he’s caused others, so be it.
The performances of Michael Fassbender and the supporting cast help set the tone of the film. Over the three acts, we see Fassbender mature in some ways, and remain obstinately the same in others. He finds himself having the same arguments with people over and over again, and Fassbender plays this with both a developing understanding of what other people seem to need and an increasing irritation that others won’t just go along with what he wants. Fassbender’s on-screen charisma and temperament go a long way in informing the audience how we should feel about Steve; his performance is just as crucial as the writing and directing in crafting such a complex character.
But this is not Erin Brockovich. While the movie may be about Steve, the other characters refuse to simply recede into the background. And, in fact, many of them become bolder over the years. As Steve Wozniak, Seth Rogen’s initial conciliatory attitude towards Steve eventually gives way to a cold comprehension of just whom he’s been dealing with all this time. The hardening of Wozniak is one of the more heartbreaking beats of the film, and Rogen plays the character with increasing resolve, strength, and sadness. As Joanna Hoffman, Steve’s marketing executive, Kate Winslet is required to be efficient and cold, having to manage Steve’s affairs without judging the often terrible choices that he makes. And like Wozniak, she eventually stands up to Steve, but for completely different reasons. Both do so out of frustration, but hers carries with it an intense love and affection for Steve. She’s not merely angry about the things he’s done in the past; she just wants him to do the right thing for the future.
And then there’s Jeff Daniels as John Sculley, CEO of Apple and Steve’s de facto father figure. Daniels has spent the last few years becoming very well-acquainted with the cadences of Aaron Sorkin and he brings so much to his role that we can’t take our eyes off of him. The wisdom that comes through in Daniels’ sad eyes as he laments a once-great and now broken relationship. Perhaps more so than anybody else, Sculley saw the true potential of Steve Jobs, but was also in the unfortunate position of having to run a company. Daniels plays Scully as a man invigorated by the visionary he sees before him, but with an understanding that this can’t possibly last. History has not been kind to John Sculley, but Jeff Daniels’ heartbreaking performance should help to mend that perception.
These characters are well-developed and beautifully presented. We know who they are and what they want. And, ironically, the more we get to know them, the more we know Steve Jobs. Like Charles Foster Kane, Steve makes an impact on everybody around him, but that impact is slightly different, depending on the person. When you add it all up, you get a character that is complicated and nuanced, seeing the whole world as being against him, while able to adapt to the individual needs of those that love him.
Back and forth we go, seeing the charismatic brilliance of a man who is often completely unsympathetic. We root for him to achieve his dreams, while simultaneously hoping that he’ll finally apologize to those he’s wronged. It takes a very specific balancing of tone for us to root for the redemption of a character that is so capable of deception and manipulation, but Steve Jobs strikes that balance perfectly. We see that Steve Jobs is more than just a collection of flaws and virtues. He is a swirling blend of these things, able to hurt one person and help another within minutes of each other. He is a mass of contradictions, while remaining surprisingly consistent. In other words, Steve Jobs does what few biopics are able to do: take a visionary public figure and reveal his inherent humanity.