To loosely paraphrase David Fincher, the mind of screenwriter Aaron Sorkin works in a rapid-fire bursts of multi-tiered levels, as if the author is juggling three contemporaneous conversations to your one, sometimes listening, always five moves ahead of where you are, but able to ping pong effortlessly between all subjects. Whether that’s an accurate depiction of how Apple groundbreaker Steve Jobs’ mind operated or not, it’s how Sorkin decides to portray the tyrannical computer pioneer in Universal’s thrilling drama, “Steve Jobs.”
A deliriously quick-footed and orchestrally pitched character study, “Steve Jobs” is an ambitious, deeply captivating portrait of the high cost of genius. The Danny Boyle-directed “Steve Jobs” is a dazzling showcase of the brilliant, multi-layered, and rat-a-tat delivery of screenwriter Aaron Sorkin. For all its dimensions of an iconoclastic, trailblazing thinker and digital revolutionary, “Steve Jobs” is also a movie about fatherhood, absentee fathers, rejected children (Jobs was also adopted), and the price of committing yourself to a visionary way of thinking.
A sort of companion piece to “The Social Network” — also about tech geniuses and what made them tick — “Steve Jobs” is actually even more accelerated and nimble. The entire movie is pitched like the opening scene of Fincher’s film, where Jessie Eisenberg and Rooney Mara engage in a quick-fire tête-à-tête full of confusion as Eisenberg’s Mark Zuckerberg pinballs his way through five different subjects and the exasperated Erica Albright can barely keep up. “Steve Jobs” is that mode on steroids — Sorkin on an all-night Red Bull bender — and its breakneck results are utterly absorbing.
So, for better or worse, Sorkin sees the mind of a virtuoso tick in this familiar manner, but this methodology effectively works for “Steve Jobs,” a movie that is much funnier, more emotional, and more soulful than the film about unlikeable Facebook millennials.
Brilliantly sliced up into three unconventional acts that eschew traditional biopic structure—crucial moments in the Steve Jobs story, all set before three critical product launches: the 1984 Macintosh, 1989’s NeXT demo, and 1998’s triumphant iMac unveiling—each story informs the trajectory of Jobs’ ascension, but details all the failures and struggles along the way. “Steve Jobs” is all run and gun: you learn about character and plot as the move throttles forward.
‘Jobs’ begins in 1984 and it sets the structure and tone of each act: Jobs besieged by myriad conflicts, both technical and personal, that threaten to ruin each product launch. In ’84, Jobs (a brilliant Michael Fassbender) is juggling and contesting paternity with ex-girlfriend Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston), while his dutiful confidante and right-hand-marketing-woman, Joanna Hoffman (a terrific Kate Winslet), runs interference. More importantly, their demo, run by Mac development tech head Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg), is on the verge of becoming an embarrassing failure. Meanwhile, the under-appreciated, eventually resentful Ringo Starr-esque character of Apple Inc. co-founder Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen) implores Jobs to give acknowledgement to the Apple II team that’s keeping the company financially afloat.
All the while, the cruel, unfeeling, and egocentric Jobs is belittling, threatening, and diminishing the work of all his employees, even going so far as to hurl astonishingly harsh and thoughtless barbs at Chrisann and the daughter he doesn’t want to acknowledge, Lisa (played by Makenzie Moss, Ripley Sobo, and Perla Haney-Jardine in the three respective sections).
In Sorkin’s hands, Jobs is presented as a messianic, megalomaniac shitbag with his head up his ass; more concerned with a Time magazine article than the little girl looking to connect with her aloof, socially maladroit, self-involved father. Jobs is also presented as though he could be on the autistic spectrum; he has zero filter, fails to recognize anyone’s point of view other than his own, never believes he’s wrong, and often condescends with arrogant daggers. Job believes his own press and hype, and likens his vision to artisans like Bob Dylan, Alan Turing, Igor Stravinsky, and Leonardo Da Vinci. He is essentially posited as the worst boss of all time, a monster of a human being, a man who does not believe in the impossible and will not take no for an answer. But he’s also a figure that inspires devotion and compels people to follow, and it’s this dissonance that creates a richly layered portrait of a brilliant, but demanding individual.
If the character sounds intolerable as rendered by Michael Fassbender, delivering Sorkin’s deliciously jagged bon mots—so many juicy ones you lose count—the character is just a wonder to behold, his hubris razor-witted and sharp. Anyone who thinks Fassbender doesn’t look enough like Steve Jobs is underestimating his transformative powers. The actor’s commitment to Jobs’ unflinching intolerance and speed of mind is just sensational.
“Steve Jobs” thus follows the pattern set up in the first act—a new launch, a new set of problems, and a family melodrama percolating in the background. The NexT act introduces John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), the former CEO of Apple in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, and having spent three years on “The Newsroom,” Daniels effortlessly dives in like duck to water with Sorkin’s assail. “Steve Jobs” chronicles failures and setbacks in the Apple maverick’s career, including his ejection from Apple in what becomes a self-manufactured treacherous coup against Sculley that backfires, and his triumphant return; resuscitating the company on the verge of death in the late ’90s.
At just over two hours, “Steve Jobs” packs in stratums of histories and dramas. Two such riveting conflicts are his long-time feuds with his “Rain Man” friend Wozniak and Sculley (two separate fierce face-offs with each men will leave you breathless when they are over). Kate Winslet as Jobs’ work wife Hoffman is fantastic, though it should be said her Polish accent only appears in acts two and three.
Shot by Alwin H. Küchler (“Sunshine,” “Hanna”) each act has its distinct look, 16mm for 1984, 35mm for 1989, and Alexa-lensed digital photography for its final act. Danny Boyle’s always excelled at visually kinetic propulsion, but the filmmaker wisely does not often dig into his bags of hyper stylistic tricks. Instead, in an almost counter-intuitive notion making for one of his most restrained works, Boyle gets out of the material’s way, and serves it as best he can. About as showy as the camera gets is driving Steadicam-led walk and talks which are Sorkin trademarks anyhow. As you’ve guessed, “Steve Jobs” is ultimately an Aaron Sorkin film directed by Danny Boyle, and the filmmaker is sharp enough to understand there’s no sense in trying to compete with the distinctive pitter-patter rhythms of the Sorkin-ese patois (and this is easily his finest script to date, even if his impressionistic take isn’t always rooted in fact; that’s ok, this is a movie, not a history class).
Much of the craft around “Steve Jobs” is top shelf stuff too. Aside from the tremendous editing fluidity of Elliot Graham, Daniel Pemberton’s score is terrific and versatile; pulsating with electronic energy, throbbing with operatic melodrama and almost never misses a beat (though some of the third act notes are suspiciously too reminiscent of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ score in “The Social Network”)
The prevailing idea that David Fincher could have made it better is malarky. His “Social Network” is impeccably made, but a glorified “Law & Order” episode, and as a clinician, he almost never gets to an emotional core the way Danny Boyle can (plus what would be the upside for Fincher to repeat himself again?). Sure, the film is still incredibly impellent, even without a constantly roving camera, but Boyle motivates the perpetual motion viscera he’s so good at through its potent editing, pulsating score, and the thrilling energy of Sorkin’s rich and layered dialogue, which makes “The Social Network” look like child’s play.
In bringing the movie’s real theme full circle, Boyle overcooks things a little in the final five minutes. The father/daughter story bubbling below the surface of the entire movie spills over with a type of anthemic poignancy that the film hasn’t yet demonstrated. It’s a little out of key, but it’s really just there to deliver an emotional catharsis to the familial narrative brewing underneath, and it’s fortunately not a major dealbreaker.
A surefire awards contender, “Steve Jobs” is largely breathtaking stuff, at the very least on an experiential level; it’s a rush of blood to the head. A electrifying portrayal of a relentlessly determined and dysfunctionally complicated figure, “Steve Jobs” is a buzzingly entertaining movie about an obdurate radical with a broken operating system who still managed to transform the world around us, how we communicate, and the course of technological history. [B+/A-]
This is a reprint of our review from the 2015 Telluride Film Festival.