The underrated, under-celebrated film ‘Steve Jobs’

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Francois Duhamel/Universal Pictures/Courtesy

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In 2015, Oscar winners Danny Boyle and Aaron Sorkin partnered with Oscar nominee Michael Fassbender for a biopic about the tech giant Steve Jobs.

The talent behind “Steve Jobs” seemed like a dream team. Yet, despite rather good reviews, the film failed financially. At the end of its theatrical run, it likely lost over $10 million and didn’t even outgross the critically slammed “Jobs” starring Ashton Kutcher.

But box office doesn’t matter for awards season, right? That misconception slowly started to crack apart as the year wrapped up. Countless critics association awards didn’t nominate it for Best Picture, but Sorkin, Fassbender and Kate Winslet were mainstays. Thankfully, Fassbender won 11 lead actor awards.

Time, however, seemed to be the enemy of “Steve Jobs,” as Oscar nomination day came and Sorkin was snubbed. Yet, his script is undeniably masterful. While tryptic structures aren’t new, it’s hard to find another movie that literalizes the tryptic with three real-time scenes. Perhaps many contended with Sorkin’s unfriendly, experimental take. But to this day, it’s a travesty that his script went unrecognized.

When SAG and BAFTA continued the disappointment, things looked dire for Fassbender as well. There was simply too much going for Leonardo DiCaprio.

Most understand that DiCaprio’s Oscar is a career award. The marketing department of “The Revenant” capitalized on the narrative of him losing again and again, and had the additional “It Was So Hard To Make” aspect. He ate an actual bison liver, and that’s masterful acting, right? Well, that’s questionably even acting. DiCaprio’s performance is abrasive, lacking subtlety. Fassbender’s offers both captivating power and nuance.

With the theatrical, choreographed “Steve Jobs” dialogue, Fassbender shines. While most nominated leads have one mesmerizing moment, Fassbender has several. Jobs’ confrontation in the second act with Jeff Daniel’s John Sculley showcases Fassbender’s commanding use of his eyes, his tonal cadence and his subtle physical reactions.

While Fassbender dominates these scenes, he also creates vibrant chemistry with each character. To truly inhabit the role and overcome his lack of resemblance, Fassbender had to capture how Jobs was with others, creating an essence.

And that essence comes from subtlety. Many critics were dissatisfied with what they believed to be a sudden sentimentality in the third act when Jobs begins to mend his relationship with his daughter. But they are genuinely missing developments that earn that ending.

At the beginning of the film, when Jobs rejects Lisa as his daughter, Sorkin ingeniously introduces that Jobs himself was adopted, setting up the motivation for his denial.

In the second act, Jobs encounters his most challenging conflicts, and Sorkin simultaneously introduces his growing connection with Lisa — a thoughtful juxtaposition. After seeing how Lisa’s mother takes advantage of her, a heightened conflict like Jobs’, Jobs develops empathy for her, capped off by a powerfully quiet moment when Lisa hugs Jobs and whispers “I want to live with you.”

In the third act, Sorkin offers more on Jobs’ childhood, disclosing that Jobs knows his real father, but doesn’t want to reveal himself to him. With this, and being back at Apple, Jobs has to reconcile his renewed fame, his legacy and his now-accepted daughter. Sorkin brilliantly opts not to show Jobs’ acceptance — that’s not where the emotions are earned.

There’s a combative vulnerability between Jobs’ relationship with his parents and that with Lisa. But finally, to avoid putting her in the situation he was in, Jobs admits why denied her for so long. In masterful fashion, the man who’s spoken so much simply says, “I’m poorly made.”

Boyle played a huge role in selling the arc. I wouldn’t want to see the version from David Fincher, who was previously attached to direct, as his slowly paced, atmospheric style wouldn’t have fit the movie’s tone. It needed Boyle’s rapid-fire approach — that’s the rhythm of Sorkin’s script, and that’s what allows Fassbender to give such an electric performance. The pacing is also a testament to editor Elliot Graham, just as the tone is a testament to composer Daniel Pemberton.

There’s not one misstep in Graham’s construction of the viscerally intense scenes, and he and Boyle certainly know when to hang onto a shot for those moments of nuance.

And Pemberton showcases incredible versatility. He utilizes computer sounds for intriguing moments, while opting for operatic orchestration during grandiose scenes — something that helps craft the Shakespearean figure of Jobs.

Perhaps the synthesis of each contributor’s job was too cohesive to be separated beyond Fassbender and Sorkin. If I was the decider of the Oscars, I would’ve added nominations in picture, adapted screenplay, film editing and original score, and given awards to Fassbender, Sorkin and Winslet.

But “Steve Jobs” won nothing. It failed financially and it’s unfairly criticized. Don’t get me wrong. I understand that, overall, it’s rather well-received. But much of the critique seems misguided.

Worst of all, people are forgetting it. Even objectively, I will firmly posit that “Steve Jobs” is a special film. It’s a masterful deconstruction of a mythic figure, and it’s thoughtfully relevant to today’s power hungry, technology-addicted minds that sacrifice real human connection for success and ego. But most importantly, it’s a really entertaining film. Give it another look.

Contact Kyle Kizu at [email protected]. Tweet him at @kyle_kizu.

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  • iretos

    There’s a reason why I think awards mean nothing and all you wrote explains it very well. People start awarding an actor or a movie and they go on doing it for the rest of the awards season, but this doesn’t mean they are awarding the best ones. I’m glad that you wrote this article and I hope you wrote something as good as this when the movie was released. Because a lot of people discovered “Steve Jobs” when it was shown on tv or when the dvd came out, finding it great, Fassbender masterful and so on. Where were they when the movie was released in theatres? “Ah, another movie about Jobs, what a bore”, this was the most common comment I read here and there. As for the rest, this movie is one of the best of the last years in my opinion; it combines an incredible script with masterful interpretations and a director who follows every step of the story with a firm hand. As to Fassbender, all I can say is: DiCaprio who?