I didn’t know what to expect going into Danny Boyle’s ‘Steve Jobs’. In 2013, I’d witnessed Ashton Kutcher play the titular character in the atrociously bad ‘Jobs’. Shortly after, I’d read Walter Isaacson’s terrific 656-page biography ‘Steve Jobs’. And so, I’d entered the picture hoping to have a good experience, but with a measure of cynicism that I wasn’t going to see anything I hadn’t seen before. I was wrong.
Aaron Sorkin’s first-rate screenplay splits the movie into three parts, each based on a product launch orchestrated by Jobs. The first involves Jobs (magnificently embodied by Michael Fassbender) moments before the 1984 launch of the Macintosh computer (and shortly after the famous ‘1984’ Super Bowl ad). The second takes place in 1988 when he is preparing to launch his educational computer, Cube, via his tech company, NeXT, after being ousted from Apple. The third is Jobs back with Apple for the 1998 launch of the iMac. Essentially, this is a three-act stage play for the screen. And I love how daring and eccentric this storytelling choice is in selecting these pivotal moments in Jobs’ career. Both this movie and the recent ‘Love & Mercy’ break free from the leash of the standard, cradle-to-the-grave biopic blueprint. With its minimalist set design, and walky-talky histrionics, it isn’t hard to imagine ‘Steve Jobs’ as a stage production.
In the first act, Fassbenders’ Jobs has the appearance of a villain. Wearing a suit and bow tie, he threatens to publicly disgrace his subordinates if they can’t make things perfect by the time he gets on stage to introduce the Mac, and he is quick to repudiate his ex-girlfriend Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston) and his 5-year-old daughter Lisa (Mackenzie Moss).
The same recurring figures in Jobs’ life appear backstage just moments before each product launch. I really doubt John Sculley (Jeff Daniels) asked Jobs how he felt about being adopted seconds prior to the unveiling of the Mac, but given the film’s structure, the script would have to place these conversations here – otherwise, it would just be technical jargon without any sort of glimpse into Jobs’ inner life.
Within these three glimmers, no attempt is made at redeeming these characters of their flaws. It’s a depiction that Jobs would be proud of. I recall Walter Issacson commenting on Jobs not wanting any control over what was written in his biography. He wanted people to speak honestly and was completely aware of how candid they would be. We see him how he was, warts and all. There is a tendency within us to instinctively anoint those who passed on for sainthood.
A different format is used for each of the segments: the first act was shot in 16mm film, the second in 35mm, and the third in washed-out digital, all to illustrate not only the time period, but also Jobs’ focus becoming more lucent as he emerged.
The filmmakers assume that you’re going into ‘Steve Jobs’ with a certain level of knowledge about his life. It won’t fill in the blanks for you. If you don’t know about the Apple 1 computer built in Jobs’ garage in Los Altos, or his long and bumpy friendship with Steve Wozniak (played amazingly by Seth Rogen here), this exploration into Jobs’ psyche may be lost on the viewer.
The energy is unrelenting and the actors more than meet the challenge of being able to deliver Sorkin’s dialogue with aplomb – after three seasons of ‘The Newsroom’, Jeff Daniels has mastered this. With the exception of two brief scenes, the movie takes place entirely within interiors; Sorkin loves his uninterrupted walking and talking through every hallway, stairway, and doorway. This gives the movie a sense of propulsive motion and energy and if Sorkin isn’t deviating much from his trademark, at least the aesthetic aligns with the storytelling choice since all the characters are backstage. Personally, I think he is as talented a screenwriter as anyone working today. Seth Rogen delivers the best line; Wozniak, after a heated confrontation with Jobs in a crowded auditorium before the 1998 iMac says: “You can be decent and gifted at the same time. It’s not binary.” Jobs didn’t have Wozniak’s sense of empathy, but in some ways this relentless drive – the need to dismiss the problems in front of him, and look towards his next move helped him accomplish all the things he set out to do. The argument could be made that Jobs wasn’t necessarily all that indecent but for someone who was a brilliant innovator, we held him to such a high standard in all regards.
A nearly unrecognizable Kate Winslet is outstanding as Joanna Hoffman, Jobs’ poised yet mighty marketing guru and the voice of reason. Because she’s delivering dialogue penned by Sorkin, there is speechifying, but she brings a quiet intensity to the role. The banter between her and Fassbender are among the picture’s highlights and it’s a delicate feat – being able to make such rapid-fire dialogue seem like a piece of cake, but of course, it takes a lot of work to get that timing down perfectly.
Both ‘The Social Network’ (also penned by Sorkin) and ‘Steve Jobs’ are about real-life technology pioneers, and Sorkin is great at creating a portrait of total genius as a monster. “Computers aren’t supposed to have personality flaws, so I’m not going to design this one with yours.” Wozniak tells Jobs early on.
This dialogue doesn’t direct itself and Danny Boyle’s kinetic talents perfectly align with Sorkin’s supercharged writing. This enclosed structure is the right fit for Boyle – in ‘127 Hours’, he made a movie about a guy trapped under a rock so much more cinematic than anyone could have possibly anticipated. If I do have a quibble, it has to do with the reliance on montages to transition from one act to another. Sure, the majority of audience members would prefer to know what took place during the intervening years, but as an already innovative piece of cinema, I think it could have gone even further by simply providing a blackout which would have felt truer to its theatrical presentation.
Like the tech products released by Apple, this is a brilliant, ingeniously designed motion picture. Michael Fassbender and Kate Winslet will be in every awards conversation between now and the night of the Oscars. Expect Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Actor (Michael Fassbender), Best Actress (Kate Winslet), Directing, and Screenplay. QED.