I honestly don't know how much the Steve Jobs of Steve Jobs resembles the late Apple co-founder, but I can only hope that the portrait offered here is a loose one. As played by Michael Fassbender (Inglorious Basterds), written by Aaron Sorkin and directed by Danny Boyle, this Jobs is a thoroughly insufferable tyrant with a serious god complex and a startling willingness to wound his subordinates for the sake of getting things done. He is also a wildly wealthy genius, which is why so many people are willing to tolerate this behavior. At times, he bears a strong resemblance to the Sorkin-scripted version of Mark Zuckerburg; a fiercely intelligent, tech-savvy innovator with laser-sharp focus and terrible manners. Both characters have a tendency to be casually cruel, but the key difference is that Jobs doesn't seem to suffer from Zuckerberg's lack of social skills. Sorkin's version of Zuckerberg seemed to rank somewhere on the autism spectrum; his version of Jobs merely ranks high on the asshole spectrum.
Still, this isn't a mean-spirited hit piece, though it's easy to understand why many Apple enthusiasts and Jobs acolytes (and there are more than a few of them) feel that way. It's not a fair and balanced portrait of the Apple story or of Jobs' professional career, but that's because it isn't really about those things. Everybody knows that story. Instead, Steve Jobs is a genuine attempt to grapple with the price of genius, taking a detailed look at the effect Jobs' uncompromising vision had on several of the key relationships in his life. At times, it plays like an intense two-hour episode of This is Your Life, as Jobs is repeatedly confronted by figures from his past and is required to defend the decisions he has made over the years.
The film's structure is unique: the whole thing is essentially three long scenes, each taking place in the moments leading up to the launch of a new product. The first portion of the film takes place in 1984, just after Apple's iconic George Orwell-inspired commercial aired and just before they introduced the Macintosh. The second is in 1988, after Jobs parted ways with Apple and began working on his own device called the NeXTcube. Finally, we have a sequence set in 1998, as Jobs has returned to Apple and is preparing to introduced the wildly acclaimed iMac.
In each of these sequences, Jobs has intense conversations with the same handful of people: his ex-girlfriend Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston, Inherent Vice) and her daughter Lisa (who is almost certainly Steve's daughter, and who is portrayed at different ages by Perla Haney-Jardine, Ripley Sobo and Makenzie Moss), Mac team member Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg, A Serious Man), Apple CEO John Scully (Jeff Daniels, The Newsroom), Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen, The Interview), reporter Joel Pforzheimer (John Ortiz, Luck) and Jobs' right-hand woman Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet, Titanic). The job titles these people hold often change from act to act, as does the nature of Jobs' relationship with them, but each relationship is unique and provides us with a different window into who this man really is.
Nearly everything Sorkin has written over the course of his career has been about Great Men Doing Great Things. His dialogue is consistently smart and witty, but on many occasions, he has found ways to undercut himself. Too often, Sorkin has succumbed to the temptation to let his saintly protagonists steamroll their cartoonish, one-dimensional foes (who usually happen to be Sorkin's own ideological foes) with grand, eloquent speeches. That's part of why Steve Jobs may very well be the best screenplay Sorkin has written (rivaled only by The Social Network): the protagonist is far less saintly than usual, and there are no cartoonish, one-dimensional foes for him to conquer. It's clear that Sorkin admires Jobs a great deal, but he doesn't let that admiration blind him to the man's weaknesses and failings. More importantly, Sorkin seems to care about every single character in this movie, so when Jobs lands those devastating punches that Sorkin heroes always land, we're intensely aware of the pain being felt by his targets. The script is as innovative and polished as one of Jobs' top-tier inventions, sporting dialogue so exhilaratingly crisp and snappy that the film's two-hour running time zips by in the blink of an eye. There's one scene in particular – a ferocious, flashback-filled argument between Fassbender and Daniels – that feels like the dialogue equivalent of one of those magnificent action sequences from Mad Max: Fury Road.
Sorkin is unquestionably the dominant voice here (unavoidable, considering that the film is a non-stop talkathon), which means that it's entirely too easy to overlook the considerable contributions of director Danny Boyle. Like Sorkin, Boyle is a talented guy who often has a knack for getting in his own way – he has a penchant for overdirection, and there are too many Boyle movies that mysteriously fall apart in the third act. Here, his work is consistently sharp and focused, and his occasional stylistic flourishes tend to deepen scenes rather than pull us out of them. I was particularly struck by the way he pushes certain characters to the edges of the frame, as if they're merely in Jobs' peripheral vision (it's worth noting that Jobs himself is pushed to the edge of the frame from time to time). The film has the structure of a stage play, but it never feels like one because Boyle always finds ways to bring energy to a scene, whether that means staging one of Sorkin's trademark “walk and talk” sequences or dialing in Daniel Pemberton's compelling, diverse score (which always supports the drama without overwhelming the dialogue).
Fassbender doesn't look or sound much like Jobs, but he digs into the character with such tenacity that it doesn't take us long to forget about that. I was reminded of Anthony Hopkins in Nixon, successfully becoming the character without ever really impersonating the character. More often, I thought of a different Nixon movie: Robert Altman's Secret Honor, which offered an scenario in which Nixon (played by Philip Baker Hall) reflected on the successes and failures of his own career. None of what happened in Secret Honor really happened, of course (as far as we know anyway), but it used known truths to create a rich, revealing piece of fiction. Likewise, Steve Jobs often uses what we know about Jobs' relationships with the people in his life to create a series of imaginary but dramatically rich conversations. For instance, Jobs and Scully never spoke to each other again after Jobs left Apple the first time, and Scully has expressed regret that he never had a chance to make up with Jobs. Boyle's film gives both men the opportunity to have the conversations – both bitter and bittersweet - they never had.
Fassbender's prickly performance anchors the film, but everyone here does tremendous work. I could throw all sorts of superlatives at Winslet, Daniels, Waterston and Stuhlbarg, but instead let's simply say that they all meet and sometimes exceed the considerable demands of the script. I would not bat an eye at an Oscar nomination for any of them. However, the performance I found most affecting was Rogen's turn as Wozniak. Considering how often he plays versions of himself, it's easy to forget what a good actor Rogen can be. Here, he plays the film's most lovable character; a good-natured teddy bear of a man who keeps gently insisting that Jobs show a little appreciation for the people who look up to him. Jobs likes Wozniak, but there's an imbalance in the way they view each other – Wozniak sees Jobs as his brother, while Jobs seems to regard Wozniak as a family pet. To the end, Wozniak is the increasingly frustrated angel on Jobs' shoulder, begging and eventually demanding that the unmoving genius do the right thing. “It's not binary – you can be decent and gifted at the same time,” he insists.
The Wozniak scenes are moving, but the real emotional core of the film is found in the relationship between Jobs and his daughter. Initially, Jobs refuses to even recognize Lisa as his daughter, slandering her mother in the pages of Time and stubbornly continuing to cite the fact that a court declared there is, “only a 94.1% chance I'm the father.” Still, he eventually (if begrudgingly) accepts some form of responsibility, and seems to care for her more than he cares for anyone else in his life (which still isn't much – certainly not as much as a father ought to care for his daughter – but it's something). This portion of the film is also at the heart of Steve Jobs' ending, which is sure to be the most divisive element. There will be those who feel the conclusion is a compromise; a betrayal of the case the film has made over the course of the preceding two hours. A valid take, I suppose, but that's not the way it felt to me. The film argues that Jobs' real genius was not in creation, but in salesmanship. He could take something profoundly flawed and limited and persuade us that it was something beautiful and inspiring. It's only appropriate that the film follows his lead. This is a tremendous piece of work – the best film Boyle has made and a fascinating study of the conflict that exists between achieving great things and being a good person.
Rating: ★★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 122 minutes
Release Year: 2015