The auteur theory commonly refers to the concept that the final product of a certain quality of film is, in all aspects, attributable to its director. It may be financed and marketed by studios and written/edited/shot/scored/etc by others, but at the end it remains a reflection of the director’s vision, as that person would have the final say in the work of others involved in the production. But every now and then, a writer comes along with such a singular authorial voice that it comes to define the cinematic experience. Many of these singular writers tend to direct their own projects (your Quentin Tarantinos, your Wes Andersons, your brothers Coen), with one notable exception. Aaron Sorkin’s work has been brought to the screen by Rob Reiner and Mike Nichols, Bennett Miller (he shared a credit with Steve Zaillian on Moneyball) and David Fincher, but even with these different directors and their own styles, creative teams and the like, they all so undeniably of a piece that the uniqueness of Sorkin’s voice tends to overpower almost everything else.
His newest project, a biopic of Steve Jobs, had some trouble getting off the ground. Originally attached to Fincher as a follow-up of sorts to their Oscar-winning collaboration The Social Network with Christian Bale set to star, things fell apart. Enter Slumdog Millionaire and Trainspotting helmer Danny Boyle, who after flirting with Leonard DiCaprio, finally managed to get it into production with Michael Fassbender agreeing to don the tech savant’s signature black turtleneck. Structured as a series of three moments prior to major press launches (the Macintosh in 1984, the Next in 1988 and the iMac in 1998), Steve Jobs paints a portrait of a man whose ceaseless drive and ambition is only matched by his equally unparalleled sense of self-importance. Flanked by his confidant Joanna (Kate Winslet), Jobs must contend with faulty demo machinery, the whims of employees like Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg), the desires of his friend Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen) and the constant presence of former girlfriend Chrisann (Katherine Waterston) and his vaguely in dispute daughter Lisa (Perla Haney-Jardine, Ripley Sobo and Makenzie Moss).
Anyone who has seen The West Wing or Sports Night or The Newsroom should not be surprised that the bulk of Steve Jobs consists of Steve struggling against the chaos of life to do his job excellently. Sorkin’s protagonists have always taken a sort of Aristotelian view of the world where one’s happiness, worth and moral sense is driven by the desire to perfect one’s “work” or calling in life. He often receives criticism for the manner in which his characters act like producing a SportsCenter-esque highlights show or a cable news program or a new computer is the single most important action in the world, but his characters remain consistently steadfast in that singular brand of Ancient Greek striving for self-worth. This approach makes Sorkin particularly engaged in procedure, the perfection of always starting on time and the unacceptability of a computer that will not say hello when it is meant to. The procedure becomes a backdrop of sorts, forcing his characters to let down their guard while scrambling to do their jobs, which allows their personal issues to sneak by unabated and blow up in their collective faces. And when it comes to that trope, Steve Jobs may be its perfect distillation.
Fassbender’s Jobs may be modeled after a certain Ancient Greek brand of ethics, but his arc is certainly Shakespearian. Sorkin does the majority of his heavy lifting through Jobs’ relationship with two specific people: Woz and Lisa. To him, Woz resembles an anchor, the human embodiment of Apple’s successful but technologically inert Apple II, while Lisa represents a cocktail of feelings, from mistrust of her mother’s motives and financial security to a real sense of connection with his daughter to an abject stubbornness to admit any sort of impropriety. In both cases, he is putting the importance of his work far in front of the relationships that got him there. Much like The Social Network, this is no hagiography; Jobs is portrayed as a visionary, sure, but a petulant and and at times staggeringly shortsighted one. He ends the film a conquering hero, but the bodies left in his wake are not swept under the rug. Fassbender plays his role well; he may not particularly look or sound like Jobs (not that Jesse Eisenberg was the spitting image for Mark Zuckerberg), but he sells the sort of maniacal zeal the script requires. A late knock-down drag-out fight with Woz (Rogen is also excellent as he pulls a Jonah Hill taking on a dramatic role in a Sorkin-involved film) frames everything beautifully in this wall-to-wall smorgasbord of quips and walk-and-talks.
Honestly, the person who feels the most absent in it all is Boyle. A showman of a director, Boyle has taken that sort of up-tempo camera movement and editing style into his own (even 127 Hours, his film about a man literally immobilized for over five days, crackles with kinetic energy), but takes a noticeable backseat to Sorkin’s prose. He emerges from the shadows from time to time (including a somewhat bewildering nod to a rocket launch and nifty sequence featuring kinetic typography and newspaper headlines, a sort of montage without actually montage-ing) to dutch up some angles and compose some nonstandard shots, but he is mostly a ghost. It is abundantly clear that this script that predominantly consists of scenes of two people talking in a room was not written with Danny Boyle in mind. This is not to say he does a bad job, but simply a neutral one. This is Aaron Sorkin’s show.
Those frustrated by Sorkin’s gleeful abandonment of verisimilitude, his love of walk-and-talks or baroque references to opera and classical music need not worry about seeing Steve Jobs. There is nothing for them here. What is here is probably the most representative piece of Aaron Sorkin writing yet which gladly trades the honorifics of The Newsroom for something more measured (well, as measured as Sorkin can be). The cast is an excellent one from top to bottom, all of them game for the motor mouths required to make a script as long as this one must be to clock in at just over two hours. And while the visuals of the film are not as engaging as they could be, Boyle makes sure the action never becomes actively boring. This may not have the transcendent joy of The Social Network, but it more than measures up to the Moneyballs and the Charlie Wilson’s Wars and the An American Presidents of his career. And there are fewer pleasures greater than the way Michael Fassbender commands a screen while inhabiting a thorny, complicated character. His performance alone is enough to make Steve Jobs one of the more necessary viewings as award season approaches. Luckily, there is more to this film than just Fassbender, making this an intelligent and exciting look at a deeply flawed man.