The most anticipated studio debut of the fall festivals, “Steve Jobs” rests on an extraordinary text by “The Social Network” Oscar-winner Aaron Sorkin, who structures a dense, dialogue-driven narrative around three “ten-minute” run-ups to Apple co-founder Jobs’ unveilings of the original Macintosh computer in 1984, his NeXt black cube in 1988, and the iMac in 1998.
It was a smart move to marry sensual visualist Danny Boyle with Sorkin’s 200-page screenplay (most are 100), largely set inside the bowels of three auditoriums. After seeing the finished movie—which rides the flow of Sorkin’s dialogue with propulsive movement and varied settings–it’s easy to understand why then-Sony motion picture chairman Amy Pascal twisted herself into a pretzel over green-lighting the picture after Christian Bale left. There were too many risks for a studio head already on the ropes. (The Sony hack emails on “Steve Jobs” are fascinating; read its turbulent history here.)
Producer Scott Rudin (one of many) pulled the movie from Sony; Boyle spent a day going to the studios with the “Steve Jobs” pitch. Donna Langley at Universal (which is enjoying flush times) quickly snapped up the audacious biopic (which is based on Walter Isaacson’s bestseller) with Michael Fassbender attached.
At the first screening at Telluride, the filmmaker praised Fassbender for somehow absorbing into himself Sorkin’s massive pages of dialogue (“the sound of Jobs’ mind”), never checking a script or sides on set. (Kate Winslet reports that they did run lines together in their trailers.) “The film you are going to see tonight has some of the best acting in it I’ve ever seen,” Boyle told the Telluride crowd. “It was the challenge of my career, without a doubt.”
WATCH: How Kate Winslet Warms Up ‘Steve Jobs’ (EXCLUSIVE VIDEO)
I can’t disagree. Fassbender and Winslet as the Macintosh marketing chief Joanna Hoffman both dazzle with their fleet-tongued performances, unlike anything they have done before. Fassbender is playing a monster, in many ways, who is also a genius who believed his computer would change the world. Boyle describes Part One, shot in gritty 16 mm with flashbacks to the famous garage where Apple was born, as an origin myth. It is thrilling.
The filmmaker compares Sorkin’s fictionalized portrait to a flawed but compelling protagonist from Shakespeare. Sorkin takes quite a few liberties—and was able to interview Jobs’ daughter, who did not participate in the biography. At Telluride, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak told me that he didn’t interact with Jobs at these launch events and never called his “friend” “an asshole”; his call about getting credit for Apple 2 went to Jobs’ hand-picked CEO John Scully (Sorkin’s “Newsroom” star Jeff Daniels). But while Jobs mellowed in later years, Wozniak said, at the time of the iMac launch he was still “pretty brutal.”
Boyle shot each section of the movie separately, mostly in two-shots, insisting on filming in the (expensive) San Francisco Bay area. The second section was shot in 35 mm, the third in hi-res digital. “I tried to create a space for these actors to act these extraordinary scenes as written,” he said. Sorkin jams the most dramatic moments in Jobs’ life into highly stressed pre-show encounters with his principal antagonists, masterfully managed by his personal timekeeper Hoffman with a Moliere-like efficiency as she shuttles her boss from one backstage location to another.
There’s his ex-girlfriend Chrisann Brennan (Katharine Waterston), who fights for support for his child Lisa, who he refuses to admit is his. Sorkin and Boyle recognize, as Alex Gibney does in his excellent Steve Jobs documentary, that Lisa humanizes Jobs. He’s tender with her, at the same time that he insists that he did not name his computer after her.
There’s also father-figure Scully, who pushed the Apple board to fire Jobs after the first Macintosh didn’t sell—after Jobs ignored Hoffman’s warnings not to overhype his product—and his chief engineer Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg), who did in fact advance $25,000 for Lisa’s tuition to Harvard.
Somehow, this gifted filmmaking ensemble brings to life this complex man, who past his death still fascinates the billions of people around the world who are in love with Apple products. Jobs tells the disgruntled Wozniak (well-played by Seth Rogen), “I play the orchestra.” But Fassbender reveals a damaged man who sacrificed himself to fight for his impossibly high standards.
The risk is that this Hollywood take on Jobs is almost too warm and fuzzy as the filmmakers seek to redeem him via the adoring gaze of Hoffman and his daughter. Will the Academy and audiences warm up to this? It’s must-see one-of-a-kind cinema that cannot be ignored.
From Telluride Boyle and his editor returned to the editing room to put the finishing touches on the movie before it played to applause at the New York Film Festival. Critics are rapturous; audiences will weigh in next.