Steve Jobs is, without question, one of the most notable figures of the past half-century. He created Apple, found himself pushed out of the company, then returned to make it the most valuable corporation in the world through its iconic product line. For as many people there are who admire Jobs, though, there are as many who were put off by the man’s abrasive personality. In other words, he’s the type of figure primed for at least one biopic. While not the first, Steve Jobs may be the most notable film on the Apple founder, thanks to an ambitious form crafted by screenwriter Aaron Sorkin and director Danny Boyle.
Eschewing the standard life-spanning biopic format, Steve Jobs instead centers around three different product launches that tie into key points in Jobs’ life. The first act takes place at the launch of the Macintosh computer in 1984. The second act happens in 1988, as Jobs prepares to introduce his NeXT computer following his dismissal from Apple. The final act occurs with Jobs’ celebrated return to Apple in 1998, with the debut of the iMac. Each act covers a 40-minute period of time just before Jobs walks onto stage for the presentations.
Within each act, Jobs interacts with the same six people who were substantial parts of his life: Apple marketing head Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), Mac developer Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg), Apple CEO John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), Jobs’ daughter Lisa (Makenzie Moss at 5, Ripley Sobo at 9, Perla Haney-Jardine at 19), and Lisa’s mother Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston).
In case it wasn’t obvious, there’s a lot of fiction crafted with this structure. Some of the figures present were nowhere near all three product launches, particularly Hoffman, who had retired before 1998. That’s okay – Steve Jobs isn’t intended to be a realistic portrait of these three events. Instead, the film uses these points to examine Jobs through these various relationships, and how they were at these specific highs and lows of his life. These are characters who have a connection to Jobs, which allows them to push him in various directions.
The film’s structure is the creation of Sorkin, in what feels like a throwback to his days as a playwright. The format is purely theatrical, filtered through Sorkin’s signature behind-the-scenes style that’s the trademark of his various television series. Fans and critics of Sorkin’s style will recognize his tendency to cram conversations into tight periods of time where characters move from place to place – the “walk and talk,” as it were. It’s a style that tends to dominate, which makes director Danny Boyle’s choices in presenting the material interesting. In each segment, Boyle takes one interaction and cuts between the current conversation and a related incident in the past, with each cut between the two scenes adding to the scene’s intensity. He also uses different filming styles to distinguish the three periods; 1984 is shot on grainy 16mm film, 1988 is shot on a crisper 35mm film, and 1998 is brightly shot in a digital format. With some other flourishes thrown in that fit in with each individual segment, Boyle keeps the film visually interesting, while still reining in some of his flashier tendencies.
Other, bigger names were bandied around for the role of Jobs, but Michael Fassbender proves the right choice for this particular version of the character. It helps that the film isn’t meant to be an historical recreation of events, because Fassbender doesn’t necessarily capture Jobs’ specific mannerisms. Instead, he captures the version of Jobs that Sorkin and Boyle wanted to create. In their hands, Jobs is someone trying to look at the bigger picture who has to deal with what’s in front of him. Fassbender plays Jobs as a clearly stubborn egomaniac, but one who still can (ultimately) garner some sympathy. It works.
It also helps that Fassbender is surrounded by a brilliant supporting cast. Winslet gives one of the strongest performances of her career as Hoffman, giving her a necessary weight as one of the only people who can regularly put Jobs in his place. Rogen is more surprising, as he helps bring an energy to the scenes between Jobs and the more people-friendly Wozniak, who wants Jobs to acknowledge those who helped make Apple into a success. Even Daniels gets to bring empathy to Sculley, who has routinely been considered the reason for Apple’s post-Jobs failure in the 80s and 90s. And the film’s most damning scenes of Jobs, involving Chrisann and Lisa – a daughter Jobs claimed wasn’t his in Time magazine – are heartbreakingly conveyed through the performances of Waterston and the three actresses playing Lisa.
The final result isn’t quite on the level of Sorkin’s last film about a tech genius. The Social Network, though, was helped by David Fincher’s style taking over the script, and his decision to take aim at Mark Zuckerberg as much as any of the other characters. While Steve Jobs is clearly not a deification of the man, the shots aimed at him don’t resonate quite as strongly. It would be a larger problem, if this were structured as a definitive account of Jobs’ life. Instead, by working to capture the essence of the man, Steve Jobs creates an intriguing look at one of the most well-known figures of today.