If you’re going to interpret on film the searching mind of an indisputable genius, it helps not to make too many dumbass moves. On that basis, score a triumph for Steve Jobs, written, directed and acted to perfection, and so fresh and startling in conception and execution that it leaves you awed. Michael Fassbender rips through the role of the volcanic Apple co-founder and CEO who sucked at personal interaction but soared at transmogrifying personal computing and everything digital from music, animation (Pixar) and publishing to those iPhones we wear like a second skin. Fassbender’s Jobs is a tornado of roaring ferocity and repressed feeling. He’s also charming and seductively funny, which makes him dangerous if you get too close. Fassbender gives a towering performance of savage wit and limitless firepower. Is he really that good? Hell, yeah.
The script, by Aaron Sorkin, an Oscar winner for The Social Network, is sheer brilliance. Sorkin didn’t so much follow Walter Isaacson’s bestselling Jobs biography as absorb it into his DNA and release it with a daring structure and point of view all his own. Sorkin divides the movie into three time frames, each filmed in different formats by the gifted cinematographer Alwin Küchler and each involving the launch of a new Jobs product.
The first part, shot on low-res 16mm film, is set in 1984 in Cupertino, California, where Jobs, 29, debuts the Macintosh. The second part, presented on widescreen 35mm, unfurls at the sleek San Francisco Opera House in 1988 when Jobs, axed by Apple, presents his NeXT cube to mass indifference. The final part, utilizing high-def digital, takes place in 1998 at San Francisco’s Davies Symphony Hall, where Jobs, back calling the shots at Apple, gives the iMac its famed send-off. Dazed by the tech-speak and whirling innovations? Sorkin offers no sympathy. Echoing Jobs’ rush to the next big thing, Sorkin counts on you to keep up. It’s a challenge worth taking.
Cheers to master filmmaker Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire, Trainspotting, 127 Hours) for directing Sorkin’s three-act play with the hurtling speed of a white-knuckle thriller. Boyle also knows how to fill the spaces between words so they reveal the emotions of the multitudes who come and go in Jobs’ hectic life. Sorkin moves characters around his cinematic chessboard (shades of Birdman) with little regard to whether they were actually present during Jobs’ backstage rampages. Still, their actions and reactions have the ring of harsh, abstract truth.
The actors could not be better, as they thrust and parry over 14 years with the man who compares himself to Julius Caesar, an emperor surrounded by enemies. A superb Seth Rogen finds the bruised heart in Steve “Woz” Wozniak, the Apple co-founder who can’t laugh off Jobs’ refusal to credit his team with the success of the Apple II computer. Michael Stuhlbarg shows us the pain in software developer Andy Hertzfeld, who suffers the wrath of Jobs for failing to make the Mac prototype say “hello.” And Jeff Daniels, an iconic Sorkin interpreter on HBO’s The Newsroom, nails every nuance as John Sculley, the Apple CEO who fires Jobs and sparks his cruel revenge.
Can anyone tame this perfectionist beast? Polish-born marketing chief Joanna Hoffman comes close. As played by the glorious Kate Winslet, award-caliber and radiating grit and grace, Hoffman is the one person ready to give shit to the boss. She berates Moneybags for letting his former lover Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston) live on welfare and for denying paternity of their five-year-old daughter, Lisa (Makenzie Moss). Nine-year-old Lisa (Ripley Sobo) gets closer to the old man. But it’s not until 19-year-old Lisa (a stellar Perla Haney-Jardine) fights her controlling, withholding dad on his terms that Jobs takes his first real steps toward her.
Sorkin never goes soft on his protagonist, an adopted child with an ugly streak built to keep those closest to him at a distance. But Fassbender lets us see flickers of humanity. What we don’t see is the older, even richer Jobs who married Laurene Powell, had three children, created more Apple miracles, fought the pancreatic cancer eating away at his body and died in 2011 at age 56.
Steve Jobs the movie aims to catch the man at three public points when people who defined their lives in relation to his showed up at the last minute to give him holy hell. Harsh? Yes. But essential to a film about a pioneer who created products with a slick, spotless veneer to hide all the tangled circuits inside. In Steve Jobs, sure to rank with the year’s very best films, we see the circuits without ever diminishing the renegade whose vision is still changing our digital lives.