7 reasons Steve Jobs failed to meet its early Oscars buzz

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Michael Fassbender received a Golden Globe nomination for his portrayal of Jobs.
Steve Jobs wasn't the movie many fans hoped for.
Photo: François Duhamel/©2015 Universal Studios

It’s the Oscars this weekend, and if you’re an Apple fan, one question that lingers in the mind is what exactly happened to all the early awards buzz for Aaron Sorkin and Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs biopic.

Initially hailed as one of 2015’s crowning cinematic achievements, the movie bombed at the box office and even registered on some “worst movies of the year” lists. Although it has picked up Oscar nominations for Best Actor and Supporting Actress (Michael Fassbender and Kate Winslet), the movie failed to get put forward for Best Picture, while Sorkin was also a notable absence in the Best Adapted Screenplay category.

Having now seen Steve Jobs three times (twice at the theater and once on Blu-ray), here are my thoughts on why the flick was ultimately a disappointment.

The direction is unremarkable

As the critical success of the colorful, vibrant Slumdog Millionaire shows, director Danny Boyle can make a movie that’s visually stunning — and capable of taking home the Oscar. While I was never a big Slumdog fan, I was bowled over the first time I saw the director’s earlier Trainspotting, which is about as kinetic a movie experience as you could hope for.

Especially today, a movie like Steve Jobs — consisting of people standing around talking to one another — needs to do something visually interesting. Steve Jobs (the person) understood from early in his career that you don’t sell computers to the masses without a bit of theater and spectacle to go with it. For whatever reason, Boyle seemed to miss this part.

Would originally planned director David Fincher have made it more of a visual treat? Sadly, we’ll never get to find out.

aaron-sorkin
It’s not Sorkin at his razor-sharp best.
Photo: WEBN-TV/Flickr CC

It’s not Sorkin at his best

I love Aaron Sorkin. Steve Jobs spawned some of the most soaring speeches and withering putdowns in Silicon Valley history. These things together should have made Steve Jobs a dream project. Sadly, that isn’t the case.

Characters in Steve Jobs are one-dimensional, the dialogue has all the snap of a dry bath towel, and Sorkin’s brilliant ability to use dialogue to drive the action forward seems strangely absent.

I understand that a Steve Jobs movie has more to cover than one about Mark Zuckerberg, who was the basis for Sorkin’s superlative Social Network, but the writer’s other works have taken on international politics (The West Wing) and the entire news media (The Newsroom), which show he doesn’t shy away from big subjects.

With Steve Jobs, it all ends up feeling far too much like a clever structure — a biopic based around just three keynotes — which adds up to substantially less than the sum of its parts.

It bombed in theaters

The Academy Awards has a funny view of popularity. If a movie makes too much money and becomes a blockbuster, it’s seemingly guaranteed not to win the big prizes — which is exactly what happened to a movie like The Dark Knight in 2008 (with the exception of Heath Ledger’s unavoidable posthumous Supporting Actor win).

But, at the same time, if a movie bombs so badly at the box office that it takes on the instant word association of “flop” (remember Richard Linklater’s tremendous Me and Orson Welles? I thought not), the Academy never seems in a rush to reward it.

After all, the Oscars are a chance for industry types to slap themselves on the back for a job well done. What’s “well done” about a movie that lost shedloads of money for its backers?

Click-click boom.
Click-click boom.
Photo: Universal

It’s crazily inaccurate

Do I think that Academy voters didn’t vote for Steve Jobs because they’re sticklers for Apple history, and won’t hear of a movie that has Andy Hertzfeld — an engineer from the original Mac — showing up in a scene based around the launch of the iMac? Of course not.

Do I think some potential viewers stayed away because of the movie’s inaccuracy — and this, as noted above, affected the movie’s Oscar chances due to its poor box office? Quite possibly. Either way, the lack of accuracy certainly bothered me no end when I was watching Steve Jobs, and I think this is one of the flick’s biggest weaknesses.

I’ve got no issues with movies that take liberties with the truth. If Sorkin wanted Jobs to come up with the idea for the iPod five minutes before unveiling the iMac because his daughter seemed to care more about her Walkman than talking to her dad, I don’t mind. It’s neat storytelling and, as Jobs might have said, it “joins the dots.”

What I mind a whole lot more is the fact that about only the first third of this Steve Jobs movie felt even passably accurate. The rest of it feels like someone stopped reading Walter Isaacson’s biography on page 100, then decided they were going to finish the story themselves — with only the most cursory knowledge of what actually happened.

Why is NeXT suddenly rewritten as an attempt to force Jobs back into a CEO role at Apple? Why is John Sculley, who Jobs never spoke with again after 1985, showing up at both the NeXT keynote and iMac introduction to act as a surrogate father figure? Why is Joanna Hoffman positioned as the second-most-important person throughout Jobs’ life? Why would anyone work for a guy like movie Steve Jobs, who just yells at people without any of the positive qualities that made the real Jobs one of tech’s most inspirational CEOs?

It’s hard to watch Steve Jobs and not wonder all of these things.

"And here... we... go!"
“And here… we… go!”
Photo: Universal

Michael Fassbender doesn’t look like Steve Jobs

OK, so Michael Fassbender got nominated for Best Actor. But with Leonardo DiCaprio seemingly destined to win, it’s a safe bet that Fassbender’s not going home with a statue this year.

The Academy loves seeing an actor transform themselves into another person (preferably a famous one). Fassbender doesn’t once look like Steve Jobs in the movie, and there was never any pretense that he did. He sounds kind of like Jobs — with the same “gee whiz” boy inventor voice — but the physical resemblance to Apple’s late CEO simply isn’t there.

That’s a problem when Steve Jobs already doesn’t tell us anything about Jobs we didn’t already know. Especially when the two previous actors to play Steve (Noah Wyle in the brilliant Pirates of Silicon Valley and Ashton Kutcher in 2013’s Jobs) bore such a strong resemblance to him.

It’s a movie about tech

Agree with the premise or not, the whole “Oscars so white” controversy highlighted how a lot of Academy voters are old dudes. A movie about tech was always going to be a bit of a hard sell to that crowd.

What is frustrating with Steve Jobs is that Apple, whether you dismiss it as just insanely clever marketing or something deeper, sold the world on the fact that computers can change lives. There is something transcendent about the way Apple thinks of machines, as epitomized by Jobs’ belief that Apple sat (and still sits) at the crossroads of technology and the liberal arts.

Steve Jobs the movie never tries to make computers more than the controlled, hard, insular shells that stand in for Steve Jobs’ personality. If the audience doesn’t care about Jobs’ mission to sell computers, why care about the guy at all?

Steve Jobs is soooo 2011

It pains me to say it, but a Steve Jobs movie just feels played out here in 2016. Jobs died in late 2011, at which point it felt like the world went into mourning. If a Steve Jobs flick had been ready for release at that point, I don’t doubt it could have ridden a wave of interest in Apple’s late-CEO … possibly even into an Oscar win.

However, since Jobs died, we’ve had one other movie, multiple documentaries, several biographies, and an opera or two to satiate our interest in the Apple founder. Apple is enormously relevant today, as can be seen by the company’s current FBI battle over smartphone encryption. But a movie about Steve just doesn’t feel timely.

Other reasons?

Have you seen Steve Jobs? Am I being too harsh on it, or are there reasons I’ve left out as to why it didn’t become the massive critical and commercial success some were predicting?

Based on the other awards it’s received for its actors, it’s impossible to call it an out-and-out disaster, but — like many — I expected so much more from the movie. Leave your comments below.

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  • StantheMan

    Thank you. Excellent take on this. The movie was no where as good as people thought it was or better yet- “Wanted it to be” – I think the Boyle/Sorkin connection with a great subject like Apple and Jobs had people excited that this was going to be awesome and it wasn’t. Not even close. Your review nailed it at every level.

  • Robert Lee King

    I think you may have watched an entirely different film. While the film is slow and Fassbender does not look like Steve Jobs, he carries the role well overall including his relationship with Lisa and CrisAnn. What destroyed this film, was the publishing and distribution companies pulling it from theaters within its first 2 weeks of release. This meant, those who wanted very much to see the film, who went to see other blockbusters released during the same time, missed their chance. I didn’t get to see the film until it was finally released on iTunes and other mediums. Since, I’ve watched it 4 times and discovered something new every time. Much of the film is subtle, at times glossing over full disclosure in favor of theatrics but it all comes full circle in the final moments of the film when Jobs, hands Lisa a folded piece of paper. A printout of the picture she is shown drawing on the original Mac in his dressing room in the first part of the film. A lot is left out and to mixed effect overall but, those things included actually provide more insight into the kind of person Steve Jobs was internally. Conflicted, damaged and driven. This film had nothing to do with the products each segment mentions. It is a relationships film and there, it proves well worth the time. This isn’t your typical b.s. Hollywood film and should never have been thought of in that light.

    • site7000

      The problem is that neither the book nor the film actually provided insight into the kind of person Jobs was. They both had an agenda that “went dark,” emphasizing the negative and minimizing the positive. Who, other than the most dedicated Jobs-hater, wants to watch that?

    • Luke Dormehl

      But the products have to enter into it, in my opinion. Sorkin realised this too — by fixating on the “end-to-end” control ideas as a key metaphor for understanding Jobs. Even if you buy into the idea that he was this brutal, bullying character (which I don’t, at least not as the totality of who he was as a person) it’s a fascinating paradox that this same guy made friendly, approachable technology. That would have been an interesting continuation of The Social Network’s theme that a social network could be run by an antisocial guy. Instead, Jobs in the movie could have been an executive in any line of work. It just felt a missed opportunity.

  • Thom2020

    In my view, Steve Jobs is an excellent film and, given the distance of time, will be re-evaluated as such. In my opinion, two things damaged the movie’s box office and Oscar success.

    This is a far darker (and more intelligent) movie than the Social Network. I think, because of this, Steve Jobs confounded and even frustrated audience expectations. The dialogue in the Social Network is sharp, witty and, in places, very funny. However, there is little humour to be had from Jobs verbally eviscerating and reducing a child to tears. There is a studied cruelty here not present in some of Sorkin’s other movies. The comparison with the Social Network (while not entirely unfair) was inevitably destined to alienate audiences looking for ‘more of the same’.

    Secondly, and while I think that the historical inaccuracies did not hurt this movies prospects one jot, I do think that the adverse publicity generated by Jobs’ widow and ex-colleagues was very, very damaging. For example, I can imagine that the Academy was not entirely charmed by the image of Jobs’ grieving widow begging Leo not to take the part.

    Ironically, given the historical inaccuracies, I do think that this movie gets beneath the skin of the titular antihero, offers a compelling study of a (albeit, largely imagined) father/daughter relationship and asks intelligent questions regarding creativity and the nature of genius.

    • Luke Dormehl

      Thanks for this. It’s always good to read a smart appraisal of a movie that’s different to your own take. I would struggle to accept that this is a smarter movie than The Social Network: that movie’s central premise that the head of the world’s biggest social network could, himself, be an antisocial jerk (regardless of whether that’s reality) seemed more contemporary and interesting than a one-sided view of Jobs as a bully.

      I think you’re probably right about the Academy not wanting to upset Apple, though.

  • Skimming through image-less headlines on Reeder, it took me several seconds to realize you were talking about the movie. At first, I was like “huh?”

  • Bob Forsberg

    This article and forthcoming comments focus on the analysis of the movie. It failed because nobody wanted to see, let alone pay for another Steve Jobs movie.

    • Luke Dormehl

      This isn’t about why it failed at the box office – so much as failed as a movie, specifically one which could win as Oscar.

  • OneBehindTheOne

    Apple sucks, people pretend the iMacs are better than Windows. They just want to “look cool” my windows laptop runs so much better than a mac. By the way Steve Jobs was a dirt bag, he was a dead beat father and THAT IS ALL TRUE.Steve Jobs is also overrated. What did he do exactly that was so great? He failed more than he succeeded.. Every time he tried something ALONE he failed….People say “well he created the iPod” who cares! There was already MP3 players out before the iPod.. The iPod sucks by the way. You need itunes for an ipod which if people were honest they would say itunes was just a pain in the A**..So much easier with MP3 player as all you do is drag file and place.. No 2 minutes of “syncing” and all that jazz… Steve Jobs is the most overrated tech guy ever and so is Apple. Oh how great you have this little laptop that has a little tiny screen….No thanks, I rather have a nice 16 inch screen that is louder and is faster and I can put whatever I want on it without being at the mercy of Apple

    • P-Dog

      If you’re going to troll, at least stay on topic.

  • Jkdem85

    They don’t talk about the iPhone… No movie or book on jobs really does in detail. It’s apples greatest and most important invention

    • Nem Wan

      That was one more reason this movie felt unnecessary. It didn’t go beyond the timeframe of Pirates of Silicon Valley. Although Pirates skips over the NeXT years, the final scene of the Bill Gates video appearance at Macworld occurred only 9 months before the iMac introduction.

      Both the Microsoft truce and the iMac were important to saving Apple, but they only restored Apple to where it should have been without the missteps that occurred during Jobs’ absence — the iMac was a reinvention of the original Macintosh, and being friendly with Microsoft was how things were when the original Macintosh came out

      How Jobs went from there to make Apple to be more than the company that makes the Mac is left undramatized.

  • londoner

    Actually I think it was too early for a Steve Jobs film, and yes, I know there have been three already!

    I think Fassbender was surprisingly good in the role albeit looking nothing like Jobs physically.

    He movie wasn’t as bad as the reviews said but it wasn’t good either. It was very well made though. I think it deserved a better fate.

    By the way, I do sort of prefer the one with Ashton Kutcher :)

  • Stacey

    I live in San Francisco, and I was one of the thousands of extras who donated their time to be in the audience for Steve Jobs launch scenes. I was part of the third and final launch segment, cheering for Fassbender as he walked onstage (and cheering for Fassbender was fun; the experience overall, not so much). I went to see the movie on the Saturday night of opening weekend here in the city, and the cinema was almost empty. That’s when I knew the film was in trouble–not even the extras who participated or the many local Apple employees were interested! I liked the movie, but I didn’t love it, agreeing with your analysis here.

    • Luke Dormehl

      Interesting to hear your experiences. Thanks for writing.

  • Nicnacnic

    The clip they showed of Kate Winslet during the Oscars was some overly dramatic thing about someone daring to sell a house? It was a really odd out-of-context bit to showcase a movie about a tech guy.