Let’s deal with some movie review basics right now. First, the acting. Is it good? Yes, it is. The film’s lead, Michael Fassbender, an Irishman of German background, is currently one of the cinema’s finest thespians. I know this because Michael from time to time shows up in X-Men movies playing a young version of Magneto, King of the Evil Mutants. (Ian McKellen, when’s he’s not palling around with Hobbits as Gandalf, normally plays Magneto, the Post Social Security Years.) When I first experienced the actor emoting during an X-Men film, he was staring at a green screen grimacing powerfully while pretending to lift a submarine out of the ocean via the power of mutant magnetism all the while wearing a tin pot on his head. It is an enduring tribute to Fassbender’s acting chops that I did not immediately fall from my seat in the movie laughing out loud. And though he looks nothing like Steve Jobs, and at 38 is too old for the role, the actor nonetheless allows Jobs to crawl into his body much like the monster in all those The Thing movies and possess him. It’s quite a remarkable performance.
Seth Rogen plays Steve Wozniak. As in the case of Fassbender, he doesn’t much resemble the Apple co-founder, but they do share body types and that helps. Also, Rogen was not allowed to direct himself or be the film’s main star, and this makes him tolerable to watch (to see what happens when he’s allowed to direct and star, watch This Is the End or The Green Hornet). The problem with his performance is not how he delivers his lines, but the context in which he says them. More on this later.
Jeff Daniels plays John Sculley and it’s difficult to know what to say about his performance. He doesn’t attempt to resemble the actual John Sculley, but that’s probably OK because no one knows what the former Apple CEO looks or sounds like anymore. Still, Daniels is an acting professional who can deliver lines in just about any movie and sound credible. The problem is that while the movie calls his character “John Sculley,” he’s tasked with playing someone who never existed on this planet, and that leaves him somewhat adrift and looking highly generic. You could drop David Duchovny into the film, have him utter Daniels’ dialog, and it would make no difference. You could even argue Duchovny would be an improvement because he once played opposite a character with a name that is at least a homophone of “Sculley.”
The final lead is Kate Winslett. I like her despite Titanic because she starred in Sense and Sensibility, a movie I think is the best adaptation of any of the books written by my favorite author, Jane Austen. She plays Joanna Hoffman, an Apple marketer and Steve Jobs loyalist who followed him from Apple to NeXT. Winslett has to generate an Eastern European accent, an attempt to reflect Hoffman’s childhood spent in the USSR and communist Poland before emigrating to America, and it wobbles a bit. Despite this, her performance is fun and brisk and most people who know about Hoffman’s working relationship with Steve Jobs have judged it to be fairly accurate in tone.
Now, how about the directing? Steve Jobs is directed by Danny Boyle, a successful director with hits and interesting films such as Trainspotting, 28 Days and Slumdog Millionaire (for which he won the Oscar for Best Director) under his belt. The cast was in excellent hands.
The screenplay for the film was written by Aaron Sorkin, the man who wrote Moneyball, won the Oscar for best screenplay for The Social Network, probably the most engrossing film made about high technology to date, and who also brought us the hit TV show The West Wing. Aaron knows how to turn a phrase and spin up a verb. (The screenplay says it’s based on Walter Isaacson’s biography, but I was unable to detect a single fact from the book in the movie.)
In addition to acting, directing, and writing, the film’s marketing was also in place, supporting Steve Jobs with $30M in media advertising and celebrity appearance programs. Early word of mouth and reviews were good, and Jobs remains a figure of fascination for millions worldwide. The film cost $30M to make, a pittance by today’s Hollywood standards, and was projected to be solidly profitable.
So, how’d the flick do?
It bombed. Badly. The film was pulled from general distribution before the end of its scheduled original run and as of this writing, has grossed about $17M at the box office. It needs to make $120M to break even. Steve Jobs did garner two Oscar nominations, but goose egged on award night.
What went wrong?
One major problem is that Steve Jobs is a well-acted, scripted, and directed piece of bullshit. The movie is to the facts surrounding Jobs’ life and relationship to Apple what The Age of Ultron is to modern day robotics and AI.
I’m not naive. I fully understand that in Hollywood, Truth is always going to be the handmaid’s tale to Entertainment. Movies take liberties with the facts. But it’s one thing to expect Truth to prostitute itself to the box office, quite another to take it up to your hotel room, roughly sodomize it, slap it in the face, and leave without paying the bill and leaving a tip.
And I’m not going to accept the excuse that Sorkin told everyone his movie is not a documentary or even a biopic. There are rules when you use the names of actual people. If you decide to make a film focusing on the life of Henry Ford, famous early 20th-century entrepreneur, engineer, and raging anti-Semite, don’t add a scene in which he founds B’nai Brith. That’s not kosher.