Steve Jobs [2015]

Much has already been written about how this is not a conventional bio-pic (biopic?) but a highly structured reimagining of three sets of behind-the-scenes confrontations with Jobs before three critical product launches. This is a kind of synecdoche for Jobs’ career and personality, so that by the end of the film you’re still supposed to get the sense of a holistic Steve Jobs as a human being and as a professional. The ergonomics of the scenes is vintage Sorkin, famous for his fast walking-and-talking scenes from The West Wing. As a result of this formal structure and storytelling aesthetic, the film is very tightly controlled and very dense, feeling something like a pressure cooker. No scene or character has time or space to breathe, frenetically rushing from one argument to the next to get through the reams of dialogue, all of which gets nicely tied up by the film’s end.

By framing all of the “action” in the film as a series of debates, Sorkin virtually sets the rules for critical engagement with the film, challenging any critic to deal with the explicit arguments made by the characters before undertaking any further, deeper, analysis. Since all of the arguments are rhetorical masterpieces, unpicking them becomes both difficult and a futile exercise in understanding rhetorical structures as much as what the film might mean – they are intellectual games, rather than revelatory. Picking just one example, there is a thread of discussion between Jobs and Sculley across the three timelines about how Jobs was adopted, and how that’s affected his life. The obvious parallel between what Jobs sees as his own rejection and what the audience perceives as his initial rejection of his own daughter is thematically complete and tidy, but shed no light at all for me on the emotional reality of his or her experiences, so that at the end of the film I was left thinking “well, that’s all very tidy, but so what?”

In short, this was a wonderful formal exercise, but its hermetically sealed boundaries make it a self-contained novelty that never generated an empathetic connection between the audience and the characters on screen. In some sense, that makes this film the perfect Apple film, matching Jobs’ own requirement for end-to-end control. A work of undoubted genius whose particular mode of success made it a total failure for me.

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