After several books, and documentaries, and even a more lighthearted biopic in the form of the dreadful Ashton Kutcher starring vehicle, everyone has attempted to tell their sides of Jobs’ rise to fame and rocky personal life. In short, it became a perfect fit for The West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin, who already tackled similar territory in David Fincher’s The Social Network, to transcribe his own interpretation of what the tech legend’s personality must have been like. In fact, it may very well be the most definitive representation of the man to date.
Told in a play-like three act structure, the film follows its titular figure (Michael Fassbender) through the lead up to several highly anticipated product launches, including the Macintosh 128k in 1984, the NeXT computer following his ousting from Apple in 1988, and the iMac post-Apple reinstatement in 1998. The behind the scenes drama continually escalates before Jobs takes the stage, with figures that, as he puts it, always seem to hit the bar before a launch to tell him how they really feel. It becomes especially hectic as Jobs continually tries to distance himself from his “alleged” daughter, harbors resentment with Apple’s CEO John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), products not working to his pinpoint specifications, and all the drama surrounding close friends Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet) and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen).
Eschewing the more traditional biopic methods of examining a figure’s history from birth to life, and perhaps feeling more experimental than Sorkin’s own rapid-fire The Social Network, much of the screenplay faces a tough struggle of what to explain to the audience in its limited timeframes, and how much can be placed in before suspension of disbelief is stretched thin. Like Jobs himself, the film is incredibly busy and wastes no time, constantly trying to get as much done before being whisked off to the next big chunk of the film, and is as verbose and breakneck fast as we’ve come to expect of Sorkin’s writing style.
In that case, it actually becomes very comparable to last year’s Birdman, as the film (like The Social Network before it) becomes less interested in the big presentation or the product that the individuals unveil, and is more interested in the struggles and drama of the people behind the curtain. At the center of it all is a fascinating portrait of Jobs, played by a career best Michael Fassbender. Often noted that, despite being such a revolutionary figure, Jobs was an incredibly demanding boss, with his employees tasked with cracking near-impossible details at only a moment’s notice.
As a matter of fact, that demanding demeanor becomes a crux for Jobs as years go by, with the lines between the snarky and the acidic becoming more and more blurred. It’s not to say that Jobs is a genuinely vile person, just a passionate man who often tends to express his thoughts in heated, in the moment ways. Despite his overbearing nature, Sorkin does do a superb job at giving humanity to Jobs, namely in the form of the budding relationship with his daughter, and the fragile friendships formed between his many staff.
Jobs considers himself the conductor to a carefully selected orchestra, moving the players from measure to measure with pinpoint precision, and that’s exactly what director Danny Boyle becomes. Best known for hyperactively edited films the likes of 28 Days Later and Slumdog Millionaire, Boyle restrains his own style to allow his actors and the screenwriting breathing room, with small flourishes inbetween to still confirm that this is undeniably his film. As if to emulate the three act structure of Sorkin’s script, but also to emulate the very changing technological trends of today, Boyle goes for some very interesting visual tricks to punch up the already reliable dialogue.
The editing tricks, musical choices, and even the photographic framing change as the film moves from product launch to product launch, with the 1984 segment shot in 16mm, 1988 in 35mm, and 1998 being shot entirely in digital. Its subtle tricks like that which make the framing device of Steve Jobs an engaging enhancement rather than a gimmick, and adds some electrifying rush to Sorkin’s heavy dialogue. These two filmmakers prove to be a natural complement to each other’s styles, and while the very last scene of the film itself threatens to feel like overly sentimental Oscar baiting, such a thing doesn’t actually come to ruin the experience at hand.
The most important orchestra players are the actors, delivering the string of soliloquies and rapid-fire arguments with as much precision and painstaking perfection as Jobs. Michael Fassbender is tremendous in his portrayal of Jobs, for while he may not look physically similar to him, the man still gets to the root of what made Jobs so interesting as a businessman, embodying his enthusiastic spirit and charismatic way with audiences effortlessly. Jeff Daniels, already familiar with Sorkin’s writing style having starred in The Newsroom, has several big encounters with Jobs in the different timeframes, especially in the film’s best scene in which the two unleash pent up aggression and frustration with the other in the fallout of Job’s ousting from Apple. Seth Rogen is given much freedom to stretch his dramatic chops as he tries to rationally level with Jobs and deal with his oblivious mistreatment, but it’s Kate Winslet as Steve’s closest confidant, always prepared to put him in his place while tending to every fine-tuned requirement for each presentation, who gets scene-stealer status.
The life of Steve Jobs is so full of fascinating history that the man could justify several movies based around him, but I don’t think any future attempt will be nearly as fascinating to watch or as definitive as this one. While this film falls just short of the same quality of The Social Network, Sorkin and Boyle have succeeded in making deceptively mundane build-up engaging to watch, with the long two hour running time breezing by, and the impressive ensemble cast contributing some of the finest work of their careers, and I think its impact, along with all of Jobs’ own technical and generational innovations, will remain just as strong.
****1/2 / *****