Few figures in technology are as polarizing as Steve Jobs. Love him or hate him, the one thing people can’t seem to do is stop talking about him. Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs makes the second biopic, and the third movie about him in general when you include Alex Gibney’s documentary from earlier this year. But where the other two are largely toothless affairs, this one is bracingly alive. By making bold choices and following them through with impeccable execution, Steve Jobs will undoubtedly be as divisive as, well, Steve Jobs.
Boyle works from a screenplay by Aaron Sorkin, who scripted the last big divisive tech-mogul film, The Social Network. This time he shrugs off a conventional Great-Man narrative in favor of a triptych: three acts, each set in the minutes before a pivotal product launches in Jobs’ career with Apple.
Each acts brings Jobs (Michael Fassbender) by turns into contact with the same figures from his life, and I apologize for the dump here: Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), Apple’s co-founder; Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), Jobs’ “work-wife” and confidante; John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), the CEO of Apple who ousted Jobs in 1985; Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg), an engineer on the original Macintosh team; Joel Pforzheimer (John Ortiz), a journalist for GQ; Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston), Jobs’ ex-girlfriend; and Lisa Brennan (Perla Haney-Jardine, Ripley Sobo, and Makenzie Moss), the daughter that Jobs denies.
What you won’t find here, for all the complaints from Silicon Valley luminaries who thump their chests and proclaim their familiarity with the man, is the Real Steve Jobs. This isn’t a complaint, by the way. We’ve had a lot of movies this year raked over the coals of “realism”, from the Close Personal Friends of David Foster Wallace turning out to bemoan the “Saint Dave” they’re certain lives in The End of the Tour without even watching it, to the Bostonians irate over Johnny Depp’s demonic portrayal of Whitey Bulger in Black Mass. What these nit-pickers seem to miss is that realism is not the point. Boyle and Sorkin’s highly formal approach should make that clear to anyone paying attention rather than advancing their own talking points.
The relationships we see are not meant as literally true, though they are inspired by real people. Each one personifies an abstraction of some part of Jobs’ life. Hoffman stands in for the Jobs loyalists, while Sculley is the corporate pressure that broke Jobs’ first tenure at Apple. Woz is his connection to the roots of the company, who knew him before he grew into his outsize persona. Herzfeld the engineers working under Jobs’ thumb. Pforzheimer is Jobs’ relationship to the media. And Lisa is his complicated relationship to his progeny, both literal and technological, which calls back to his equally complicated relationship to his progenitors.
But these are not static thumbnails. As we move from one act to the next, Jobs’ relationship to each of these people changes. Lines move from one character to another. Jobs himself insists that the Macintosh launch in 1984 absolutely must start on time, but at the NeXT launch in 1988 Joanna says it for him. By the iMac launch in 1998 the urgency is still felt, but has been pushed off to a peripheral speaker and disregarded by Jobs. It happens over and over as the script rhymes itself in some of the tightest prose Sorkin has ever constructed, and the cast execute their parts with the precision Jobs himself would demand.
Boyle and cinematographer Alwin H. Küchler compose a dramatically different look and feel for each segment. Elliot Graham’s editing is masterful, with a particular crescendo as Jobs confronts Sculley in the second act. Their argument weaves together with flashbacks, cutting back and forth across the line as we slip from present to past and back. Two conversations, three years apart in time, interlock their dialogue to produce a seamless whole.
But what of the mythical Real Steve Jobs? No film is ever going to capture him. Knowing that, Sorkin and Boyle compose a portrait of a brilliant, but flawed man, driven to produce art in his own peculiar idiom; a man of such great, singleminded ambition that he could lose sight of anything outside his particular tunnel; a man who can threaten to ruin someone’s career over a single detail in one breath, and in the next breath explain why that detail was so utterly crucial, in a way that only he could have realized. And, for all the faults we see in this character, this is anything but a hit-job. The story Sorkin lays out is entirely built around Steve Jobs’ growth and redemption. That should be a story that both sides can come together behind.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.