So long as there’s a Mac computer or iPhone around, Apple’s Steve Jobs will be remembered. But even with stellar work from Aaron Sorkin, Danny Boyle and Michael Fassbender, one has to wonder whether this new quasi-biographical film about him will be any more popular than “Jobs,” Joshua Michael Stern’s 2013 biopic starring Ashton Kutcher, was. Everybody may love the products he’s famous for, but they may not be quite as interested in the mastermind behind them.
Still, “Steve Jobs” earns points for not simply going a conventional biopic route. Unlike Stern’s totally conventional picture, it’s structured in the form of a three-act play, with highly theatrical dialogue to match (no surprise from Sorkin). Each act represents conversation that’s imagined as occurring immediately before Jobs’ introduction of a new product. The first is set in 1984, as Jobs is about to unveil the Macintosh in the wake of Ridley Scott’s memorable Super Bowl ad, and the second in 1988, when Jobs, fired from Apple in the wake of the Macintosh’s failure, is introducing the “black cube” of his new company NeXT, an even more spectacular debacle. The third act, ten years later, finds Jobs back in charge at Apple and about to launch the iMac, one of the products that will make him an enduring icon in the field.
Each of the three segments shows the endlessly arrogant and demanding Jobs, brilliantly portrayed by the mercurial Michael Fassbender (who can handle Sorkin’s crisp lines as perfectly as Al Pacino did David Mamet’s) arguing with a small stable of colleagues and acquaintances while Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), his long-suffering head of marketing, tries to prepare him to go onstage while refereeing the bickering. The one-on-one is with Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), who’s constantly complaining about Jobs’ refusal to recognize the contribution of the team behind Apple II, the company’s first—and for a long time only—success story; Andy Herzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg), the company’s chief software designer; and John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), Jobs’ handpicked CEO who nonetheless presided over his firing after the Macintosh failure. But in each case there also appear Lisa, the daughter whom Jobs long resisted acknowledging as his despite test evidence to the contrary, played successively by Makenzie Moss, Ripley Sobo and Perla Haney-Jardine, and the girl’s angry mother Christine Brennan (Katherine Waterston). Though there are occasional flashbacks tossed in to illustrate the succession of verbal duets, each act is largely made up of back-and-forth dialogue, with the egotistical Jobs happily skewering each of the others in succession.
All of this is made-up, of course; the film doesn’t for a moment pretend that it’s even remotely a documentary record of what was done and said on these three occasions. The tripartite structure is instead used as a device to capture what the film portrays as the essence of Jobs’ persona—brilliant and infuriating in equal measure, brutally frank, maniacally detail-oriented and totally self-absorbed. While utterly dependent on others for the actual work of creation, he sees himself as the ultimate architect of their efforts; in one of Sorkin’s most pointed bits of dialogue, Jobs visits the orchestra pit at the San Francisco Opera House, where the NeXT event is occurring, and recalls once meeting conductor Seiji Ozawa, who explained that while each musician plays an instrument, he plays the orchestra. Though the film doesn’t flinch from showing Jobs’ almost inhuman brittleness in dealing with other people, it does suggest a small degree of mellowing over time; and it certainly shows grudging admiration for its subject overall, recalling a comment once made by another conductor—George Szell—who, when asked why he kept inviting Glenn Gould to perform with his orchestra despite their differences, replied, “That nut’s a genius.”
And Sorkin in effect offers a Rosebud to explain Jobs to some extent—the question of paternity, which suffuses the picture. There’s Lisa’s paternity, of course, with which Jobs struggles even at the end. But there’s also the question of Steve’s biological parents—he was adopted, and though he eventually learned the identity of his biological father (a detail the film reveals only toward the close), he never made contact with the man, preferring to observe him dispassionately instead. And, needless to say, there’s another sort of paternity at work as well—the creative fatherhood of the Apple devices, in which Wozniak and Herzfeld played such major roles but for which Jobs took virtually sole credit. The matter of paternity, in its various forms, provides a dramatic “key” to Jobs’ character, to be sure, but one that—like Welles’ (or Mankiewicz’s, if you prefer)—can’t help but feel reductionist.
Director Danny Boyle accesses “Citizen Kane” in his work as well, reveling—as he usually does—in extravagant camerawork (courtesy of cinematographer Alwin Kutchler) and sharp editing (by Elliot Graham). (Much will also be made of his decision to use three different formats—16mm, 35mm and digital—for the various acts, though most viewers probably won’t even notice. Still, it’s a nice touch for the cognoscenti.) On the technical side, Guy Hendrix Dyas also deserves plaudits for his production design, which, along with the set design by Douglas Pierce, Christopher Nushawg and Mark Hitchler and decoration by Gene Serdena, gives the backgrounds a glossy sheen that’s entirely right.
As for the acting, Fassbender dominates, rattling off Sorkin’s diamond-studded lines with aplomb, punching them across even though—or perhaps because—they don’t sound at all like words any human being would ever actually speak. (This sort of dialogue seems tailor-made for the stage, where one can accept such theatrical turns of phrase more easily. Curiously, it works to better effect on television, too.) Of the others, Winslet holds her own against him most successfully, though Daniels—who uses his laid-back, aw-shucks style well as contrast—comes very close. Stuhlbarg brings his best jittery nerdy quality to Herzfeld—which is saying quite a lot—and a shambling Rogen underplays nicely as Wozniak–so it’s appropriate that Sorkin rewards him with a closing line encapsulating the combination of personal strength and weakness that the film attributes to its subject.
One wonders how admirers of Jobs will feel about that line, and the implicit criticism of the man that it represents (as well as the fact that the picture leaves so much out). Rather than trying to cover everything in Jobs’ life, Sorkin, Boyle and Fassbender have painted an impressionistic portrait rather than a naturalistic one, using their imagination and gift for highly-charged theatricality in a creative fashion Jobs himself might well have appreciated—but which his detractors might find more to their taste than his admirers will. And if the approach doesn’t do the man full justice, it’s hard to imagine that any single book or film could.