The life of Apple visionary Steve Jobs appears to be a source of endless fascination for Hollywood. There was an unsuccessful drama starring Aston Kutcher, and this year’s documentary from Alex Gibney. Now, legendary screenwriter Aaron Sorkin and director Danny Boyle have taken a unique stab at the man who changed the history of how we communicate. Sorkin, who wrote the brilliant, acerbic The Social Network about the rise of Facebook, is no stranger to the lives of tech giants. While Steve Jobs is not as successful as that masterwork, it’s still an arresting and original portrait.
The film is driven from a sensational performance by Michael Fassbender, who can seem to do no wrong. He nails the sometimes toxic combination of madness and genius that drove Jobs, the kind that is well-suited to running a company but also leaves his personal life in shambles. Fassbender can express more with his eyes that most actors can with their entire bodies. It’s a difficult performance to pull off well, but he never misses a beat.
Sorkin’s talky screenplay forgoes the typical biopic treatment to focus on three major points in Jobs’ tech career: the 1984 unveiling of the original Macintosh, the 1988 reveal of the Next computer and the 1998 release of the iMac. Each event takes up about a third of the runtime, and updates us on Jobs’ relationship with the key players in his professional and personal life. There’s his “work wife” assistant, Joanna Hoffman (an always-stellar Kate Winslet), his boss, John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), his co-founding partners in crime, Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen) and Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg) and his estranged lover and daughter, Chrisann and Lisa Brennan.
The film takes place almost entirely in doors, with tons of backroom meetings, last minute changes and personal revelations. Because each sequence takes place during the minutes leading up to a tech unveiling, everyone is always flustered, snappy and on-edge. Sorkin wisely realizes that it is in these moments where honesty emerges, and people show their true selves. When we’re first introduced to Jobs in 1984, he’s pretty much an unlikable cad who refuses to support his lover with more than the very basic of child support and stringently denies a paternity test that claims Lisa to be his daughter. There’s also his strained relationship with Wozniak, who insists that Jobs acknowledge the original Apple II team during the tech unveiling. With CEO Sculley, his attitude ranges from mildly antagonistic to outwardly hostile. He accosts his co-workers with unreasonable demands, like getting the Macintosh to say “hello” onstage despite everyone saying it’s impossible.
Sorkin’s script is certainly a warts-and-all portrait, but it never makes Jobs out as a true villain. What makes the story so brilliant is the way it peels back layers with each sequence, revealing new depth to the man than what was previously shown. When we learn, for example, how hard it was on him never knowing his birth parents, or how deep and complicated his relationship with his daughter really is, we begin to understand the true nature of the man. It’s interesting to note that Sorkin focused on two product launches that were seen as failures before giving us a successful one at the end. Here is a man whose genius was birthed in the fires of failure. It also helps that Sorkin is a master at dialogue as well; the film is wryly observant and funny; it trades cheap jokes for sophisticated pop culture references that really anchor us in the time and place of each sequence.
I was impressed with the visual variety and complexity on display here. It’s tough to make a film that takes place mostly behind stages (we don’t ever see Jobs give a full speech to a crowd) look as good as it does here. Thanks to Boyle’s assured direction, Alwin H. Kuchler’s dizzying camerawork and Guy Hendrix Dyas’ sumptuous production design, the film still manages to put on quite a show. The film experiments with pop-up graphics and text that give us something new to look at without taking us out of the story.
But Steve Jobs is the kind of film where expectations should be managed. Because it is not a full biopic but rather a portrait, we don’t get as comprehensive a view of Jobs’ life as some might like. The film dives deep into the thoughts and moments that defined these three points in his life but, other than a few brief flashbacks, we don’t get much of the scrappy wherewithal of Apple’s early days, or anything related to Jobs’ later-day successes or illness and eventual death. As such, we view his personal life solely through the lens of his career, which gives the film an odd feeling of being both deep and shallow at the same time. I’d love to see the approach given here adapted to some sort of miniseries; there’s a lot more story to tell (you may want to check out Gibney’s Steve Jobs: Man in the Machine to help fill in some of the gaps, or read Walter Isaacson’s excellent biography).
In the end, this desire to learn more about the man behind Apple doesn’t dilute the film too much. Steve Jobs is an absolute must-see, a stirring portrait of a man who had everything and nothing at the same time. It’s one of the most well-made films of the year, and the stellar acting on display from all involved is worth the price of admission alone.