'Steve Jobs' movie: 'Riveting, high speed' biopic starring Michael Fassbender at his best
On the outside, computers are clean, symmetrical slabs of molded polycarbonate; pleasant, or at least inoffensive, to look at. On the inside, however, the part most consumers don't see, is a bento box of circuit boards, memory chips, wires, graphics cards, and cooling systems, busily processing and moving the innumerable pieces of information that make the unit work flawlessly or, occasionally, crash. What director Danny Boyle's ferocious three-act rocket ride, Steve Jobs, teaches us about its eponymous tech icon, is that he was much like a computer: on the outside, clad in his signature black turtleneck and jeans, he was trim, bespectacled and flawlessly functioning. On the inside, he was on the brink of crashing, his internal OS in constant operation, avoiding, justifying, and occasionally acknowledging his poor treatment of others in the name of egomaniacal history making.
Such is the overarching idea behind Steve Jobs, a riveting, high-speed assault that crystallizes the life of a man whose career successes were a result of his personal failures.
'Steve Jobs': Aaron Sorkin's three-act play
Such a larger than life figure would seem impossible to successfully boil down to filmable length (sorry, Ashton Kutcher, your 2013 Jobs biopic is a tinker toy compared to this F16). But if any screenwriter has the imagination, insight, and wit for the job, it's Aaron Sorkin.
Here he creates a deceptively simple three-act structure that unfolds (except for a couple of flashbacks) in only three locations. Yet it contains a barrage of dialogue that's monumental in volume, scabrous and revelatory in detail. It's a typically Sorkin-esque collection of high octane, highly literate, verbal jousts that manages the neat trick of exalting Steve Jobs while also crucifying him. To say the movie makes him more human is cheap and easy. Instead, it confronts his issues head-on and without spite and, as a result, demystifies him and makes his accomplishments even more phenomenal.
Apple as an extension of Steve Jobs
Sorkin sets his superheated triptych during three of Apple's biggest product launches, in the days when the company was still the feisty underdog and not, as it is today, too big for anyone to feel sorry for it.
The first is the 1984 launch of the Macintosh. Jobs (Michael Fassbender) is only 29 years old as he stalks the hallways and backstage areas of De Anza Community College in Cupertino, California. His body and mind are in constant motion, pushing, demanding, and berating underlings who seek only the approval of a man whose cult of personality had basically already formed. He insists that software developer Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg, an underappreciated performer) find a way to get the Macintosh to say the word “hello” to the assembled audience, while also demanding the auditorium's illuminated exit signs be turned off to completely darken the theater for a more dramatic unveiling.
Befitting a writer so adept at methodically digging for, and exploiting, character weakness, Sorkin taps multiple veins of interpersonal dysfunction. He gets the most mileage from the notion that Steve Jobs found it easier to connect to a machine then to his own family and co-workers. (If Jobs even had friends, they're not represented here.)
As the minutes tick by before the big Macintosh unveiling, he's visited by his 5-year-old daughter, Lisa (Makenzie Moss), whose paternity he denies right in front of the girl and her mother, Chrisann (Katherine Waterston), who is reduced to begging for money from a man worth $400 million. Jobs only agrees to give Chrisann money after Lisa draws a picture on the Macintosh using its paint program. To Jobs, the nascent icon with supercharged ambition, people are assigned value based on their relationship to the products he creates.
Sorkin also uses this first act to introduce three other key players in Jobs' life: Apple CEO John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen, a nifty casting touch), and Apple marketing guru Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet with an inconsistent Polish accent). This Greek Chorus appears in all three acts, each holding up a different mirror to Jobs' cruel behavior.
Sculley dominates the second act's backstage drama that unfolds in 1988, after the Mac has bombed and Jobs has been fired as head of Apple. Jobs is about to introduce the wildly overpriced NeXT computer at the San Francisco Opera House when forced to confront Sculley about his humiliating ouster from Apple. Soon to be Oscar-nominated editor Elliot Graham creates thunderous, near-Shakespearean drama out of Jobs' firing, intercutting between a boardroom flashback and ever more heated, present day dialogue attesting to the depths of both men's anger.
The third product launch is the 1998 introduction of the bubble-shaped, lollipop-hued iMac, where the prodigal son, having returned to Apple, finally has it out with the hefty, bearded Wozniak. Ever in the shadow of the (puppet) master, The Woz has been begging Jobs to acknowledge the team that created the Apple II, the computer that propped up the company for years.
Steve Jobs flayed with 'surgical precision'
In its methodical, yet fast paced denuding of a callous and unfeeling modern corporate potentate, Steve Jobs is an absolute triumph. Sorkin flays the Apple co-founder's issues with such surgical precision that letting in any emotional daylight almost feels like a compromise. The film's only two missteps are a result of forcing a too-tidy button on Jobs' behavior, including the idea that his issues can be traced back to being rejected by his original adoptive parents. Sorkin also puts a rather simplistic capper on his relationship with Lisa in, not coincidentally, the only major exterior scene in the film.
Otherwise, Jobs, at least as a movie character, is best when he's bad. If the man has any empathy at all, he's offloaded it to Joanna. Jobs' exasperated aide-de-camp and “work wife” is constantly in awe at the depths of her boss's lack of compassion. Her frustration boils over until she's so angry at Jobs not paying for Lisa's college tuition that she threatens to quit.
Danny Boyle better suited than David Fincher
With all this talk of screenwriter Sorkin, it's a good time to mention that Steve Jobs was actually directed by someone: Oscar winner Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire). Even if one can imagine the dark pall that original helmer David Fincher would have brought to Sorkin's dialogue, the world of Steve Jobs is not the world of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, subject of Fincher and Sorkin's cool, incisive biopic The Social Network.
Boyle is the better choice here. His camera is fleet and energetic; his visual flourishes are theatrical and cheeky but not distracting, and his varying of film stocks (16mm for 1984, 35mm for 1988 and sleek, high-def digital for 1998) conveys the passing of time and increased technological sophistication. His camera is where it needs to be as Jobs reveals himself – as when he shakes off discordant thoughts of Lisa by muttering that an Apple chip is faster than a Pentium chip. Point being, Jobs couldn't create order in his personal life, so he created it in his computers.
Michael Fassbender as Steve Jobs: Best performance of his career
Michael Fassbender, at first blush, doesn't seem a particularly suitable replacement for the originally cast Christian Bale. But Fassbender is a softer presence than Bale and he has the visionary's glint – the one suggesting he's operating on a higher plane than the rest of us. We sense his machinery working, his circuits assessing and rerouting as the next accusation of personal impropriety approaches or he needs to come up with his next withering insult.
Fassbender creates Jobs from the inside out. The black turtleneck and jeans merely complete the illusion. He spits out Sorkin's words with such ease they feel ad-libbed. It is certainly the best performance of Fassbender's career.
Life of 'i'
Steve Jobs was adapted from Walter Isaacson's 2011 biography, which was the first high-profile, high-quality cataloguing of Jobs' shortcomings. Boyle and Sorkin have taken that material and brought it to passionate, nimble, sparkling life. You will neither like nor dislike Steve Jobs more for having seen this movie. You will, however, believe that the “i” in iPhone, iPad, and iMac refers not to the consumer who buys and fetishizes these devices, but to the man whose ego drove their creation.
Steve Jobs (2015).
Dir.: Danny Boyle.
Scr.: Aaron Sorkin. From the book by Walter Isaacson.
Cast: Michael Fassbender. Kate Winslet. Jeff Daniels. Seth Rogen. Sarah Snook. Katherine Waterston. Michael Stuhlbarg. Perla Haney-Jardine. John Ortiz. Vanessa Ross. Makenzie Moss. Adam Shapiro. Jackie Dallas. Ripley Sobo. Phillip E. Walker. Adam Reeser.
Steve Jobs movie cast info via the IMDb.
Image of Michael Fassbender and Steve Jobs movie trailer and poster: Universal Pictures.