The new Steve Jobs movie opened and of course it is getting comparisons to the 2013 film, Jobs. It makes sense, for the most part, given the proximity of their releases and the subject matter depicting the life of a recently-departed iconoclast. But really, the comparisons end there. Jobs took a more traditional path for their biopic, choosing broader more linear storytelling while Steve Jobs creatively limited the story settings to three finite events in the subject’s life. After watching both movies, which one did the better job of achieving what it set out to be? (What a loaded question, right?)
Casually browsing the internet and reading what fans say about Steve Jobs, a common theme amidst movie reviewers and message board commenters has been to immediately contrast it against Ashton Kutcher’s movie. Now, in many regards, I’d say this isn’t a fair comparison.
For one, the screenplay for Jobs was penned by first-time writer, Matt Whiteley and for as brilliant of a job he did with his first major production, probably shouldn’t be thrown in the ring with Aaron Sorkin just because they wrote about the same guy. Whiteley may one day hone his chops and earn the trust of producers to a level where he can exercise more freedom and take more chances with his storytelling, but for now, the newcomer was smart to play it conservatively.
And as for Aaron Sorkin, I am unashamed when it comes to expressing my love of his writing. In fact, he is one of the few writers who has made a name for himself without being considered a “filmmaker” or “writer/director/producer”. The voice I have learned to appreciate once again comes through in Steve Jobs who, for me, has mastered one of the least talked about skills in creating dialog: cadence. Isolating just this technique without regard to the whole movie for one second, the dialog in Steve Jobs had such a beautifully manipulative rhythm that conveys tension through the combative cadence in the actors’ interplay. The same staccato exchanges between Fassbender and Winslet, Rogen, and Daniels are signatures that can be found in The Social Network, The West Wing, and The Newsroom; relentless, precise, and emotional and something it must have taken thousands of hours to perfect. Once again, it was on brilliant display in Steve Jobs.
Besides the writing (or writers), another unfair comparison is the production itself. Steve Jobs had a budget double the size of Jobs and it shows in nearly every aspect of the movie. Despite its $15 million price tag, Jobs ended up with the feeling of a made-for-TV movie. But consider for a second at least a few differences; Jobs used a ton more locations while Steve Jobs limited itself to a handful of sets (I know… boo hoo), furthermore, Ashton Kutcher was the biggest star in the 2013 film versus the 2015 film that included award-winning talent. To me, these distinctions and their respective receptions both critically and financially suggest that the biggest appeal Steve Jobs has really has more to do with resources above any particular achievement as a film. Because, when it comes to brass tacks, Steve Jobs ended up being a very pretty film but not a great movie.
Okay, so I know I just raved about Aaron Sorkin and his writing. But something I believe about filmmaking and storytelling through the medium of film is that its greatness isn’t achieved by the sum of its individual parts regardless of how great those parts are. I would not argue against any of the following points:
The performances in Steve Jobs were exceptional.
The sets in Steve Jobs were beautiful.
The dialog in Steve Jobs was second-to-none.
The presentation of the story was creatively unique.
And despite all those things, by the end of the movie I was meh even though I felt spellbound by all these little details throughout the film.
Bringing this back to Jobs, I would probably just try to avoid altogether any conversation that has to do with how well Ashton Kutcher acts. It’s just not worth it even though in my personal opinion, he’s a fine actor who works his ass off and doesn’t go less than full-speed in any role I’ve seen him in no matter how silly the character was. The visual presentation for Jobs was not inspiring in the least which contributed a lot to its Lifetime-movie feel. The script was pretty basic and felt more informative than artistic. And on and on and on… I just could not imagine paying $15 to see this in the theater to be perfectly honest.
If asked which movie I enjoyed more, I’d say easily it was Jobs.
Nope, it’s absolutely true. Because if there was one thing Jobs got right, it was committing more of its attention and resources to the story than pretty-fying any aspects of the production. Yes, Jobs is simplistically linear but the movie had a story with a single unifying theme and told it with a beginning, middle, and ending. A person who had never heard of Steve Jobs could watch this movie and follow the characters, plot, and destination with no ambiguity. If asked, that viewer could tell you exactly what the story was about. Steve Jobs on the other hand, not so much.
Steve Jobs struck me as a movie that was in some ways confused about what it was. Was it about the relationship between Jobs and his daughter? Was it his relationship with Apple? Was it about the rift between Jobs and Wozniak/Scully? Was it about the passion he had for his work? The film included all these things and even portrayed them in powerfully emotional (and sometimes even disturbing) scenes, but didn’t bring them together in a way that suggested: the movie is about [this]. What Steve Jobs seemed to give the most priority to was sticking to the three events during which the story was told. This decision limited how details could be presented which arguably forced exposition to make up for the parts of the story that didn’t occur in those scenes. As a result, much of the dialog was about some other occurrence that happened during some other time. And I find it hard to believe that Steve Wozniak only chose these times to make his pleas to give recognition to this “Apple II team” we kept hearing about but had no significant emotional investment in.
All that being said, Jobs doesn’t just win by default or due to the relative shortcomings of Steve Jobs. What I will say is that as a biopic goes, Jobs was good. That’s it. It wasn’t this amazing achievement in filmmaking nor was it this harbinger signifying the end of the cinema (which, for some reason these days, a movie must fit into one of those categories). It was just a good movie to sit and watch for 2 hours when you’re in the mood to hear the life story of a pop culture icon whether you loved him, hated him, or never heard of the guy. To make a baseball analogy, Jobs is the player who can get on base and doesn’t commit many errors; it doesn’t take chances for the sake of making spectacular catches to get on SportsCenter highlight reels nor does it lead the league in strikeouts while pursuing 50 homeruns. Those are things that Steve Jobs did; wowing the viewer with brilliance and flashiness as well as crushing a 600-foot long-ball while whiffing at three other plate appearances leaving runners on base. And that’s why I think comparing the two movies gets dicey because at the end of the day, Jobs served itself well by not trying to achieve too much and as a result, ended up succeeding while Steve Jobs set its own bar incredibly high and didn’t quite clear it.