A sweetly sour punch of cinematic vitality, Steve Jobs is alive, it’s kinetic and it’s an intellectual kick to the shins. With a soaring foundation in Aaron Sorkin’s lively script, the dramatic biography hums along in real time, deconstructing the mythology of a recently controversial figure, the eponymous Steve Jobs, as he navigates his way to the top of the personal computer heap. From top to bottom, no detail has been spared as Danny Boyle’s signature aesthetic doddlings add a certain touch of magical realism to the affair while Michael Fassbender’s award-worthy central performance grounds the film in a degree of stone-washed, near-robotic cynicism. It’s an odd marriage of misanthropic megalomania and surprisingly salty sentiment that works for almost every minute of its run time.
Sorkin’s story streamlines the times and trials of Steve Jobs by splitting his scenes among three time periods: the respective product launches of the Macintosh, the NeXT and the iMac. Our first bout with the computer giant has him berating coder Andy Hertzfeld (an always-impressive Michael Stuhlbarg) who is experiencing kinks getting the Macintosh to say, “Hello” to the audience during its unveiling. We derive all we need to know of Jobs from his singularly belligerent handling of the situation at hand. No, the greeting cannot be scraped from the presentation. No, we will not start late. No, this error will not go unpunished. If it f*cks up, everyone will know it was you.
It works, we find out later, in large part due to the fact that the jeans-wearing techie titan held a gun to Hertzeld’s head and threatened to pull the trigger. Rather than apologize though, Steve is conveyed as the type of guy who expects a thank you and flowers with his makeup sex. After all, it worked. In his mind, the man brandishing the weapon is a leader, not a monster. Michael Fassbender hits every egocentric nuance on its head; he plays Jobs as more machine than man, allowing the idiosyncrasies of human niceties to run through his fingers like sand. He’s a pioneer hellbent on dominance – he must rule his industry, his competitors, his peers, his family with an iron grasp – but he’s not entirely shielded from the harm he inflicts upon others. The chinks in his armor are as inconspicuous as the dents in your now encased iPhone, but they are still present and their long-term impact pending.
Steve Jobs enters a long string of movies that have sought to define the man following his untimely death in 2011. There’s the appropriately forgotten iSteve starring Justin Long that satirized by way falling on its own face. Then, hot on the heels of Steve Jobs leaving Apple to battle pancreatic cancer full-time, the Ashton Kutcher-starring Jobs took a shoddy swing at immortalizing the man. Though Kutcher looked the part (almost identically so), the film was widely disregarded, with former Apple employee Bill Fernandez calling it nothing short of a piece of “fan fiction”. More recently, Alex Gibney released his hot-take documentary, Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine, to wide critical acclaim, getting the pot stirring on just what kind of man Steve Jobs really was.
Based on reports from peers (I hesitate to use the term “family and friends” since Steve Jobs evidently had neither), Boyle’s film is allegedly laced with inaccuracies and yet it still strikes to the heart of a very particular brand of commander of industry. Just as The Social Network was “about” Mark Zuckerberg, it was also about the evolution of a generation and the synthesis of a whole new form of communication. It was also about crippling social anxiety, crumbled friendships and rejection; about being damned to be a square peg in a round circle society. In that same capacity, Steve Jobs is about the revolutionizing of information and education but it is also about a man driven mad by his inability to be flexible in any sector of his life. If The Social Network in a bubble is about fearing the cell of solitude, Steve Jobs is about being crushed by your own shadow; about a man failing to discover his soul.
Boyle directs with zesty aplomb, offering the over-the-top visual flourishes that characterize his artistic leadership, while reining himself in when it matters. His sentimental side aptly juxtaposed by Sorkin’s biting script, the director’s noted “Boyleness” is mellowed to appetizing portions. Still one can’t help but wonder if Steve Jobs would have been an even truer masterpiece under David Fincher’s tutelage.
As is sometimes symptomatic with his projects, Boyle works best when he’s not distracting the material. He can thank the accomplished editing from Elliot Graham for making the occasional messiness as magically cogent and coherent as it is. In moments of high tension, Graham’s cuts are emblematic of the greater powers at play in Steve Jobs: there is so much technical and artistic ability on display that it’s regularly hard to take a breath.
Daniel Pemberton’s score, for example, is suffocating in its excellence. It’s an prodigious score; symphonic, digitized and operatic all at once. I don’t hesitate to say that his track “ is a masterpiece of film score composing. Peppered in and among a movie with a lavishly talky script (consisting of 185 pages for a 122 minute film (general rule of thumb is a page per minute)) Pemberton elevates mood more than he drives it. In quiet scenes, he’s a wallflower, decorating the scenes with 8-bit beeps and bobs. In explosive scenes of full-blown dramatic assault, he underscores the vibrant emotionality bubbling right beneath the surface with sustained cathodic pluck. It builds one stone at a time with all the majesty of a castle into a true choral explosion. It’s like Atticus Ross and Franz Schubert had a melancholic iBaby. Someone put this on my iPod now. “
To think we have not even gotten around to talking about the cast. As previously mentioned, Michael Fassbender is ten degrees of amazing: he dances his way around Sorkin’s words, swallowing and spitting them out with a perfect melange of superiority and disdain. By the end of the feature, we’re so familiar with him talking down that it becomes a thing of small wonder to see him attempting to make amends. Only a performance as committed and persistent as Fassbender’s could make the role work, though I do wonder what it would have looked like with Leonardo DiCaprio or Christian Bale in the role (both were in talks or involved at various stages of production.)
Kate Winslet proffers a instinctively bull-headed performance as Job’s Eastern European assistant Joanna Hoffman. Though she struggles to keep the accent consistent, the dramatic work is on point and likely enough to qualify her for a Supporting Actress nod. Jeff Daniels is borderline fantastic as former Apple CEO John Sculley as is the aforementioned Stuhlbard as the klutzy but brilliant Hertzfeld but it’s Seth Rogen’s restrained interpretation of Steve Wozniak that will surely be a talking point. That Rogen’s comedic background fails to distract is one thing, that he embodies the role better than anyone has before is something else entirely. Good work Ben Stone. In short, they cast conspires to capture the drive and persistent of a megalomaniac of a pioneer who worked tirelessly up until the day before he died by filling out the margins around him. Their relationships with him seek to define him and it’s impressive how many multi-faceted, textured relationships Sorkin and co. are able to bind together into one film.
The most heart-wrenching, difficult to watch portions of Steve Jobs can be found in Jobs true-to-life disownment of his daughter, Lisa Brennan. Appropriately, the film finds Jobs at his most human and inhuman in his dealings with her. Like the antithesis of Pinocchio, we realize that Steve Jobs is a man on a mission to divorce himself from his humanity. As someone who was adopted, he sees himself as “abandoned” rather than “chosen”. In his eyes, this euthanized his empathy and catalyzed his plot to become immortal. Just as Don Quixote embarked on a mission to civilize, Steve Jobs, the man and movie both, attempt the impossible: to be larger than life itself.
CONCLUSION: A purebred masterclass in filmmaking, ‘Steve Jobs’ brings Aaron Sorkin, Danny Boyle and Michael Fassbender together to tell a misanthropic biography brimming with life, humming with energy and ablaze with technical mastery. As close to you can get to an Oscar sure thing.