Right from the outset, "Steve Jobs" sounds eerily familiar: it's an unflattering biographical drama written by Aaron Sorkin about a modern technological pioneer. In this case, he's exploring the personal and professional conflicts of late Apple CEO Steve Jobs, but that description also matches Sorkin's "The Social Network," which for a while in 2010 seemed to be on the march towards the Best Picture Oscar only to be tripped up at the finish line by "The King's Speech." Can "Steve Jobs" succeed where "Social Network" couldn't?
"The Social Network" told the story of Mark Zuckerberg, who created Facebook under hotly contested circumstances while attending Harvard. Did he invent Facebook himself? Did he steal the idea? Did he cheat his business partners? Jesse Eisenberg earned a Best Actor nomination for playing the arrogant, uncompromising Zuckerberg, and the film won three Oscars: Best Editing, Best Score and Best Adapted Screenplay for Sorkin. But despite being the overwhelming choice of critics, "Social Network" lost the top Oscar to the feel-good "King's Speech."
"Steve Jobs" offers a similarly caustic view of its title character, showing Jobs berating his employees and neglecting his daughter as he navigates a trio of product launches. Having an unsympathetic lead character could handicap the film in the awards race, but it may have one crucial advantage that "The Social Network" didn't: it's about grown-ups.
The motion picture academy skews much older than the college-age characters of "The Social Network," so it's possible voters simply couldn't relate. "Steve Jobs," however, is a better fit for their demographic, and unlike the relative newcomers in the "Social Network" cast, "Steve Jobs" boasts Oscar-nominee Michael Fassbender in the lead role, as well as Oscar-champ Kate Winslet and fellow A-listers Seth Rogen and Jeff Daniels among the supporting players.
But it is possible voters will simply dislike this guy, regardless of his age. Oscar voters haven't followed the antihero trend as much as Emmy voters, who have given top honors to mobsters ("The Sopranos"), drug dealers ("Breaking Bad") and feckless politicos ("Veep"). Indeed, "The Social Network's" loss to "The King's Speech" was another victory for traditional heroes. This year already has its share of do-gooders to contend with, including the crusading reporters in "Spotlight," the transgender pioneer in "The Danish Girl" and the courageous mom in "Room," to name a few, against whom a billionaire rejecting his young daughter and hurling insults at his staff might seem less palatable.
Then again, it's possible some voters won't view Jobs as a villain at all. The academy undoubtedly has its share of obsessive artists who will stop at nothing to achieve their creative visions, and those voters may see Jobs as more of a kindred spirit. Just last year their Best Picture was another story about a determined artist with an estranged daughter: "Birdman."
But I'd be more confident about "Steve Jobs" winning Best Picture if its director, Danny Boyle, hadn't won so recently. Often Best Picture is a coronation for a filmmaker as much as it is for a film, but Boyle was already crowned in 2008 for "Slumdog Millionaire," which swept the awards with eight wins. Would they reward him again so soon? 19 other filmmakers have won multiple directing Oscars, most recently Ang Lee, who prevailed for "Brokeback Mountain" (2005) and "Life of Pi" (2012). Those victories came seven years apart, and it's been seven years since Boyle's last win, so don't count him out.
However, even if it doesn't win Picture and Director, "Steve Jobs" is a writer's and actor's paradise that could win multiple prizes in those fields. The film is structured as essentially three real-time plays, set on the days of significant product launches in 1984, 1988 and 1998. Throughout, the actors get to luxuriate in long, complex, emotional Sorkin conversations and speeches, especially Fassbender, who is in just about every scene in the title role. The academy snubbed Fassbender for Best Actor for "Shame" in 2011 and then nominated him for his supporting turn in "12 Years a Slave" in 2013, so he may be considered due a victory.
In the supporting categories, I think Rogen especially is one to watch. He has a prominent role as Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak and gets to shine most brightly during a heated confrontation with Jobs in the third act. Rogen is best known for comedy, which makes his dramatic turn all the more noteworthy; I'm reminded of Aaron Sorkin's last Oscar-nominated script, "Moneyball," which put comedian Jonah Hill on the academy's radar, earning him the first of two Oscar noms.
There's also Daniels as Apple exec John Sculley, whose clash with Jobs over his early Mackintosh computer turns personal. Daniels has yet to be nominated for an Oscar, but he won an Emmy in 2013 for Sorkin's HBO series "The Newsroom," and after decades of respected work, he too may be considered due.
Winslet adopts a Polish accent to play Jobs's trusted co-worker and confidante Joanna Hoffman. She's an Oscar-favorite with six nominations and a win for "The Reader" in 2008, but it's been seven years since she was last in contention, which is the longest she's ever gone without a nomination since her first bid for "Sense and Sensibility" in 1995. It's possible the academy has felt less urgency to vote for her since finally giving her her overdue honors for "The Reader," but a role this prominent, which also has a big emotional payoff in the third act, may prompt the academy to welcome her back into the fold.
But Sorkin's script is arguably the star of the show and may be the film's best chance at a win. After decades of developing his singular writing style in films like "A Few Good Men," "The American President" and "Charlie Wilson's War" and TV shows like "Sports Night" and "The West Wing" on TV, he has amassed multiple Emmys but only has two Oscar nominations and one win, so a case could be made that he is still under-awarded.
"Steve Jobs" premiered at the New York Film Festival on October 3 and opens in limited release on October 9. How do you think it will fare at the Oscars? Make your Oscar predictions and you could earn a place of honor on our leaderboard and a starring role in next year's Top 24 Users (the two dozen folks who do the best predicting this year's Oscar nominations).
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Photo: Michael Fassbender in "Steve Jobs." Credit: Universal Pictures