During the first scene of Steve Jobs, something immediately struck me as off. I couldn't place what it was at first, as I was already absorbed in Aaron Sorkin's characteristically sharp dialogue bouncing all over the place. It wasn't until I pulled myself out of the experience and looked directly for the distracting element that I immediately discovered it- the film quality was noticeably grainy. The scene was set in 1984, and the film looked like it was shot in 1984. I later learned that this was done intentionally: the section of the movie set in 1984 was shot on 16mm film, the section set in 1988 on 35mm film, and 1998's was shot digitally.
This is an admirable artistic choice but a distracting one nonetheless, especially because noticing it briefly took away from my connection to Steve Jobs' character. It is also a microcosm for the movie as a whole: Steve Jobs the film is meticulously and elegantly crafted in every cinematic way, but Steve Jobs the man is somewhat lost in the structure.
(The easy joke here would be to compare a movie that's "elegant but lacking depth" to an Apple product, but I'm writing this on a MacBook and you're probably reading this on an iPhone, so I'll just parenthesize the cheap shot and pretend I didn't take it.)
Like all great Apple products, Steve Jobs excels most in its technical aspects. It's written by Aaron Sorkin, masterclass screenwriter behind other works full of snappy dialogue (such as beloved political drama The West Wing and other recent biopic about a selfish tech genius The Social Network) and directed by Danny Boyle, a visionary with an equal amount of classics in his body of work.
It's no surprise, then, that the movie is excellently put together. Boyle's direction is for the most part grounded, but he occasionally uses a beautiful visual flair to wrap recurring themes into conversations- usually through flashbacks or overlaid shots that never feel obtrusive. The audio/visual trips to the past are woven seamlessly into present events, often to show us character development that occurred during years the movie skipped over.
Aaron Sorkin's writing is expectedly and magnificently pointed. Heated fights and emotional exchanges are delivered with breathlessly rapid-fire dialogue. If anyone is talking, your attention will be rapturously held. The actors delivering Sorkin's endless wit are in top form as well. Michael Fassbender is outstanding as Jobs: the movie strikes a great balance between depicting Jobs' monstrosities and humanizing the monster (except for the last scene, where the movie awkwardly swings to one extreme), and Fassbender walks this line perfectly.
Honestly though, I thought Kate Winslet stole the show as Jobs' marketing executive and confidant. There are rare moments that once could sense Fassbender acting: Winslet turns in a flawless performance- one of her best that I've seen- with such an endearingly genuine spirit that I'll be devastated if she's overlooked for Best Supporting Actress. Seth Rogen solidifies his prowess as a serious actor as well, displaying impressive range and depth in scenes of friendly banter and betrayed frustration alike.
So with all these parts in place, why is Steve Jobs just a good movie and not a great one?
Boyle and Sorkin may have exerted so much effort crafting the movie's individual pieces that they missed an opportunity to let the cohesive whole say something meaningful about Steve Jobs the man. Sorkin structures Steve Jobs like a stage play. Each third of the movie is a real-time section of Jobs' life- each time before an important launch event; each time talking with the same individuals- and almost nothing is covered in between these events. This is an intriguing way to structure a film, but it could've been handled better.
Sorkin's screenplay tends toward showing off his writing ability rather than fluidly developing Steve Jobs as a person over the years. This would be fine in theater, where the audience can directly interact with the performers on stage- or even in a movie that isn't a biopic. But when a movie is about one person, it's far more effective to write a developing character than to use him as a conduit for superb writing. The strict three-act structure magnifies this problem, as it gives Sorkin a reason for Jobs to serve the writing rather than the other way around: Sorkin can essentially restart his character's development wherever he desires to pick it up in the next act. Only Jobs' interactions with his daughter tell us something raw about the man, largely due to Fassbender's tender performance.
We're left with a Steve Jobs that says and does a lot of interesting things, but one that we still don't deeply know; we're left with a Steve Jobs that's intelligently constructed but rarely personal. Perhaps that's fitting for a movie about a man who made machines.