On paper Steve Jobs is a pretty easy film to ignore. He’s only been gone for a few years, so the current public is already pretty well aware of the man, especially when this is the second movie we’ve seen in the last 3 years. More problematic is despite all the attention he’s gotten in the media and the exposure most people have to Apple products, it’s actually pretty hard to put your finger on exactly what it is he’s done that makes him worthy of so much conversation. But it’s not the man or his story that should excite you about this biopic, it’s the talent both behind and in front of the camera that make this project special. Put aside expectations of a biopic walking you through Jobs’ life, this is a creatively constructed and energetic character study much more interested in Jobs’ personality and its effects on those around him than his accomplishments.
Written and directed by Academy Award winners Aaron Sorkin and Danny Boyle respectively (and drawing inspiration from Walter Isaacson’s same-titled biography), Steve Jobs frames its subject (portrayed by the one and only Michael Fassbender) by showing the Apple co-founder in the moments before he unveils three key products throughout his career. Each act sees Jobs running around backstage, obsessively trying to have everything perfect while juggling confrontations from the same five people who are utterly essential to his life and career, despite how little regard he has for them.
Despite the excellent cast, the biggest personality we see is one off-screen. Fans of Aaron Sorkin will immediately recognize his signature sharp and bouncy dialogue, on full force here thanks to his agile and egotistical subject. At the film’s core, Steve Jobs is a gauntlet of stressed conversations. Under a less seasoned pen the film could be a total chore, but assertive people talking backstage is this writer’s bread and butter, and Sorkin revels in every moment of it. Each interaction crackles, one duel after another bursting with humor and dramatic weight between Jobs and someone he’s let down.
The catch, of course, is that those who find Sorkin’s witticisms a little too relentless and banter a bit dizzying will find Steve Jobs particularly unforgiving. I’d also be lying if I didn’t say the script does get a little indulgent here and there; milking some emotional scenes for more than they’re worth, lingering too long and too frequently on flashbacks that don’t contribute all that match, and all up running a good 20 minutes or so more than it really should have. These blemishes on the script are probably only as noticeable in comparison to the otherwise tight writing and interesting structure, but they stand out nonetheless and present an unfortunate distraction from the film’s mostly slick storytelling.
The impact from Danny Boyle is less memorable but mostly effective. This is a story told primarily in tight corridors and backstage rooms, and it’s clear the director feels constricted. Wherever possible, Boyle injects playful visuals or cutaways to keep the viewer (and probably himself) interested. Sadly, these creative flourishes miss just as often as they hit. The transitions between the three acts, for example, turn what are essentially dumps of exposition into sharp and energetic sequences, exciting you for the next phase. Then on the other hand you have Boyle projecting images over the set when Jobs opens his mind up to someone, which if it was used more often could have been an interesting motif, but by only doing it twice it gives the film an amateurish visual inconsistency and suggests a director unsure of what he wants the film to be.
While it’s a little less showy, Boyle’s real contribution is in the way he presents his cast, drawing great performances and interplay from everyone onscreen, and giving us countless subtle and beautiful character moments that are as powerful as they are brief. More than just stirring up emotions in the viewer, these give key insights into Jobs and the rest of the cast, beyond what could be expressed in words (and certainly those aforementioned flashbacks).
It’s a testament to the cast that you’re excited to see everyone individually as they come in go in each phase. While they’re all excellent, Seth Rogen and Kate Winslet are the obvious standouts of the supporting cast as the other Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak and Jobs’ assistant Joanna Hoffman respectively. Both are pivotal contributors to Jobs’ success, carrying an undying fondness for the man despite being exposed to how cruel and uncompassionate he can be. Rogan’s Wozniak is a softer and more grounded figure, nostalgic for their friendship past as opposed to Winselt’s firm and bulldoggish Hoffman, whose muted admiration toward Jobs is for his ambition and dreams. Despite coming at him from different angles, they both share the same struggle of trying to force Jobs to do something uncharacteristically selfless and right.
As great as the cast are, they exist to give shape to Fassbender’s Jobs and to chip away at his seemingly impenetrable ego. The film doesn’t paint Jobs as an extremely sympathetic figure, letting Fassbender revel in being demanding and controlling, treating humanity as something he’s forced to deal with and generally just being a dick. But through all his cold smugness, there is passion. Jobs is a man with a vision, a self-described artist you can’t help but root for despite him giving you every reason not to. Visually, Fassbender is far from the actor that comes to mind when you think Steve Jobs, but in practice it proves to be an inspired choice of casting. Fassbender becomes Jobs utterly, transforming a well-known figure into one of the actor’s most fascinating and balanced performances to date.
While the rise, fall and comeback of his career provide an interesting backdrop, Jobs’ arc in the film hinges on the daughter he refuses to acknowledge, giving a heartfelt and very relatable core that is perfectly representative of the man as a whole. The film doesn’t give you the satisfaction of some big moment of revelation, just a slow acceptance of (some of) his responsibilities. To do otherwise would suggest Jobs was a man who could admit his mistakes. Instead, we see a patient and subtle transformation from an insufferable douchebag, to tolerable one. Audience’s that need their stories grander and more traditionally structured may struggle with the more decompressed nature of this biography. But if you’re someone who can revel in interesting characters and quick-witted dialogue, Steve Jobs is a captivating and entertaining twist on the familiar biopic.
THE REEL SCORE: 8/10