Writer Aaron Sorkin has studied Walter Isaacson’s biography of Jobs closely — much as, say, Shakespeare studied Holinshed’s Chronicles before fabricating his history plays. But rather than penning a slavish “biopic,” Sorkin has created a larger-than-life monstre sacré who can rage across three acts of dazzling dialogue and constant movement like a latter-day Lear.
This is an impressionistic portrait of a public personality where Sorkin cherry picks through the man’s relationships, fiercely held beliefs, character flaws and towering egotism to bring all these things to bear within highly compressed periods of time.
So this is a dramatically heightened portrait of Steve Jobs. It tries, and not with complete success, to view him prismatically from as many sides and points of view as possible within compressed time frames that represent a conflation of major conflicts in his life.
Jobs more than anyone else has turned our world upside down with his contributions to the high-tech revolution we are now all living through. Certainly his elaborately staged product launches were pure theater, which is the jumping off place for Sorkin’s intricately woven screenplay.
Sorkin takes you backstage in the minutes before three iconic product launches spanning Jobs’ career— the Macintosh in 1984, the NeXTcube in 1988 and the unveiling of the iMac in 1998.
Thus the structure is that of a three-act play (the structure of most motion pictures as well) where six characters turn up three times for roughly 40 minutes.
The magnetic Michael Fassbinder holds down the center as Jobs, needling assistants, bullying co-workers, demanding perfection from everyone and in a continual rage against men and machines that aren’t performing up to his expectations.
His is the glue that holds the whole things together. Fassbinder, who has emerged rather quickly as one of the best film actors of his generation, catches every nuance of a complicated, highly flawed genius who probably could not have achieved what he did in so short a time without those flaws.
The gatekeeper and stressed peacemaker in the eye of the Jobs hurricane is Kate Winslet as his marketing chief Joanna Hoffman. She struggles to temper his mercurial moods while mollifying as best she can everyone upset by Jobs’ stream of thoughtless commentary.
Jeff Daniels as former Apple CEO John Sculley is his most fervent supporter who, in Jobs’ view, was his ultimate betrayer even though Jobs deliberately backed him into a corner from which he had no other recourse. Scully is the one who links Jobs’ obsession with control to an early lack of control in his personal life.
Michael Stuhlbarg plays Andy Hertzfeld, one of the original members of the Apple Macintosh development team who finds himself eternally bullied by his boss’ impossible demands. These are in fact made because his boss is determined that the impossible is always possible if someone like Andy just gets to work.
Seth Rogen turns up as Apple co-founder Steve “Woz” Wozniak, whose years of conflict with his former friend and collaborator revolve around his belief that Jobs sold himself short — that he could be gifted and decent at the same time, not just gifted.
Katherine Waterston as Jobs’ ex-girlfriend Chrisann Brennan is, somewhat improbably, there for each launch to more or less beg for more money to support her daughter, Lisa, whose paternity Jobs denies for many years.
Lisa (played by Makenzie Moss at 5, Ripley Sobo at 9, then Perla Haney-Jardine at 19) cuts to the emotional core of the movie: She is forever reaching out to Jobs’ good side, the “decent” side that the man refuses to acknowledge. Who knows what impact she might have had on an older and wiser Steve Jobs.
Boyle, by nature one of our most energetic directors, keeps his Steadicam operator busy in all three acts as Steve is nearly always on the move backstage and in dressing rooms, making last-minute fixes, barking orders and engaging in verbal jousting matches with just about anyone within hearing range.
Act One takes place In1984 (and shot in16mm) where Jobs rages at Andy to fix a glitch that won’t allow the Mac to say “hello” to shareholders. It seems like a small problem that can simply be eliminated from the presentation but Jobs is adamant.
Hollywood has made computers into scary things — witness HAL in Kubrick’s “2001” — so he wants people to feel warm and fuzzy about their Macs.
Act Two (shot in 35mm) is Steve Jobs’ revenge. He has built a new operating system that he knows Apple will need to move to its next level. They will need then to bring back Steve. This leads to a climatic confrontation between him and Sculley, the man who “fired” him.
Act Three (shot with a modern, digital camera) ushers in Jobs’ return to Apple, as well as the iMac. It is here that Joanna insists that Steve resolve the issues with his daughter, including her college tuition, to repair a relationship she has silently watched her boss partially destroy.
One drawback to Sorkin’s schematic approach is that everyone pretty much shows up on cue to continue his or her argument with Jobs from several years before. So some things become redundant and the movie at certain moments runs in circles.
Woz harps continually on his request that Steve honor the guys who pioneered the Apple II, which was the company’s biggest money maker. But Steve hates the Apple II. He wants to look to the future without ever acknowledging the past.
“Steve Jobs” is a portrait of a man who feels the only way he can get the best out of people is by bullying and insulting; a man in rebellion against his own past; a man driven by a vision he cannot always articulate to others.
Steve is not an engineer or programmer. At one point he likens himself to a classical music conductor, bringing out the best from an orchestra of specialists. Woz chides him angrily that his products are better than he is and he retorts: “That’s the idea.”
How close the Steve Jobs in this movie comes to the actual man is hard to say. Certainly Sorkin and Boyle make you understand their “Steve Jobs” is fictional in the sense that artistic license has allowed them to bring every facet of the real man to bear in every single second of the running time.
He is never caught in reflection or relaxation. A show is about to go on so how could he be? He is always, like a politician on the stump, on message with ruthless clarity. He is never asked to be on his best behavior.
I only met Steve Jobs once, when he swung by The Hollywood Reporter not long after the iMac launch to informally chat with the publisher and a few reporters for about an hour. He certainly was cocksure about himself and his products and cooly remote. But he was also soft spoken and eager to share his vision with us. He was, in other words, on his best behavior.
This fictional Steve Jobs is never allowed to do so. He is forever a tyrant, browbeating assistants and never really listening to people. Sorkin and Boyle use this fictional construct to get to the heart of the matter, to penetrate the mythology of Steve Jobs — much of it self-created — to understand what things about his past and his personality drove him to such extremes.
Mostly the movie succeeds. In fact, I would say the movie would benefit from a second viewing. Sorkin writes dialogue that comes at you like machine gun fire, dense with thoughts and resplendent with wit. A viewer can barely absorb it all in one go.
With his two “tech” films, “The Social Network” and now “Steve Jobs,” Sorkin has turned cinema into contemporary journalism, catching major figures and movements of the digital age in full stride, creating portraits of Mark Zuckerberg and Jobs for future generations to marvel at.
He has wonderfully penetrated the world of IT to locate the complicated geniuses behind the magic. I wonder now if he has a “Bill Gates” movie in him?
Opens: October 9, 2015 (Universal Pictures)
Production companies: Universal Pictures and Legendary Pictures present a Scott Rudin/Entertainment 360/Mark Gordon Co., Decibel Films/Cloud Eight Films production
Cast: Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Seth Rogen, Jeff Daniels, Michael Stuhlbarg, Katherine Waterston, Perla Haney-Jardine, Makenzie Moss, Ripley Sobo, John Ortiz, Sarah Snook, Adam Shapiro
Director: Danny Boyle
Screenwriter: Aaron Sorkin
Based on the book by: Walter Isaacson
Producers: Mark Gordon, Guyman Casady, Scott Rudin, Danny Boyle, Christian Colson
Executive producers: Bernard Bellew, Bryan Zuriff, Eli Bush
Director of photography: Alwin Küchler
Production designer: Guy Hendrix Dyas
Music: Daniel Pemberton
Costume designer: Suttirat Larlarb
Editor: Elliot Graham
R rating, 122 minutes