Where to even begin with all of this movie’s baggage? Even if we set aside the heated Apple/Microsoft war, and even if we set aside the life and reputation of the real Steve Jobs (who’s now been dead for four years) this movie had a notoriously troubled development period that might almost be worth its own film.
Aaron Sorkin had been working on this script for almost as long as Jobs had been dead, and Sorkin was fresh off his tremendous success with The Social Network at the time. But then Ashton Kutcher starred in a competing Steve Jobs biopic in 2013, which was met with near-universal apathy. I don’t know for sure if that was a factor in what followed, but I doubt it helped.
There was a tremendous amount of drama behind the scenes, as the project cycled through directors and lead actors. At one point or another, such high-profile talents as David Fincher, Leo DiCaprio, Christian Bale, Jessica Chastain, and Scarlett Johansson were all connected with this project; so all the various contract disputes and negotiations were headline news for a while. Then Sony put the project in turnaround, right about the time when the infamous Sony hack blew the backstage bickering wide open for all the world to see. Producer Scott Rudin’s epic e-mail feud with then-CEO of Sony Amy Pascal was a particular highlight.
Anyway, when the dust had finally cleared, Universal got Sorkin’s script produced under the direction of master Danny Boyle. The iconic lead role went to Michael Fassbender, now in the prime of his career, surrounded by a supporting cast of Seth Rogen, Kate Winslet, Jeff Daniels, and others.
So after all of that, plus the sky-high expectations of an Oscar-worthy project made with such a pedigree, and given the subject matter that still means so much to so many, this picture absolutely had to deliver. And it did.
Steve Jobs takes an unusual approach for a biopic, as it focuses almost exclusively on three distinct points in the life of Steve Jobs: The launch of the doomed Macintosh, the launch of the even worse-fated NeXT Computer, and the launch of the industry-changing iMac. Everything else is filled in for us with archive news footage and brief flashbacks. So instead of getting a cradle-to-grave biopic that only superficially covers everything, or a slice-of-life narrative that goes in depth regarding a short period of time, we get a plot that splits the difference and gives us the best of both approaches. Very clever.
Otherwise, this is more of the usual stuff you’d come to expect from an Aaron Sorkin script. A lot of pedeconferencing, a lot of whip-smart dialogue, and a few running gags for comic relief (“Andy.” “Which one?”). It’s all perfectly suited for the depiction of a man who was constantly moving and thinking at a million miles an hour.
Likewise, Danny Boyle really was the absolute perfect choice to direct this movie. After all, Boyle has always shown a unique gift for visual flair, and Steve Jobs was all about visual flair. Boyle brings a wide variety of unique touches — title cards, flashbacks, voice-overs, etc. — that take us through the time periods and bring us into Jobs’ head in a fascinating way. Even better, the filmmakers’ skill with editing is such that even with this unique three-part plot, and even with sequences that whiplash back and forth between time periods, the whole film still manages to feel like a single cohesive whole. Quite impressive.
As for Michael Fassbender, he portrays Steve Jobs as kind of an arrogant asshole. He can’t ever lose an argument, he always has to be right, he always has to have the last word, and he never apologizes for anything. This is a guy who acts as if he can simply will the impossible into being just by saying that it is. He obsesses over details, and rarely if ever explains why those details are important.
Jobs is portrayed as an absolute control freak, to the point where he demands complete end-to-end control on every one of his projects. Everything has to be closed off so that no one — not the customer, not the Apple employees, not the Apple engineers or shareholders or executives — NO ONE can alter anything. Anything Steve Jobs touches, it has to be made so that he and he alone can say that it’s his work.
As for the customers themselves, he couldn’t care less what they want. The way he sees it, they’re still going to buy his product anyway.
All of that said, however, there’s little doubt that Jobs is indeed a wicked smart guy. As the narrative unfolds, there are times in which Jobs is seen to be planning ten steps ahead of everyone else, and there is an elegant kind of logic in the decisions that he makes. What it comes down to is that Apple as a company and the industry as a whole needed someone with Jobs’ drive in order to find new innovations and keep moving forward. So it’s the choice of either ditching Jobs to stick with the safe and familiar (ie: the Apple II) or following him toward an educated risk that could become a catastrophic failure (ie: the Macintosh).
(Side note: The film never discusses this, but my fellow Oregonians are sometimes quite eager to claim Steve Jobs as one of ours, because he dropped out of Reed College. Grasping at straws, in my opinion. But then there’s the matter of Jobs’ daughter, who really is a native-born Oregonian. More on her later.)
Though Fassbender is in virtually every shot of this movie, we do have some recurring players who keep cropping up throughout the various time periods. And every one of them is depicted in such a way as to bring out a different side of Jobs. One example is Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg), the put-upon technician who’s usually on the receiving end of Jobs’ ego trips. There’s John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), the would-be father figure often tasked with exploring Jobs’ psychology as a boy who was given up at birth. We’ve also got Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston) to explore Jobs’ capacity for love and compassion (or lack thereof).
Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen) serves double duty. On one level, no matter how loudly Jobs insists on looking to the future, Woz is there to serve as a constant reminder of the past. Woz speaks for all of the successes that Apple had without Jobs, or even in spite of Jobs, not to mention all the Apple employees that Jobs has alienated or laid off over the past several years. On another level, Woz gives voice to the accusation that Jobs can’t write code, he’s not an engineer, and he never designed anything himself. Yet Jobs gets all the fame and glory, allegedly because he “plays the orchestra.”
And through it all, there’s Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), Jobs’ director of marketing. Hoffman is the only one who’s consistently at Jobs’ right hand throughout the entire movie. So she may very well be the only one whom Jobs trusts implicitly, no matter how badly Jobs may abuse that trust. It’s safe to say that Hoffman knows Jobs and cares for Jobs better than anyone else, which means that she gets to dispense a lot of harsh truths that no one else would dare say to him. Conversely, Hoffman comes in very handy for the audience, as Jobs tells her (and us) things that he would never trust with anyone else.
All of that said, it bears repeating that Jobs is an argumentative asshole. He never apologizes for anything, he always insists that he’s right, and he doesn’t give a good goddamn who disagrees with him or hates him. Jobs has worked very hard to cultivate a kind of impervious persona, and that’s problematic for a biopic, because we need to see what makes Jobs vulnerable if we’re going to get a good idea of who he really is. With that in mind, let me introduce you to Lisa.
Played at varying ages by Perla Haney-Jardine, Ripley Sobo, and Makenzie Moss, Lisa is Jobs’ illegitimate daughter. In fact, given that the DNA test was only 94 percent conclusive, Jobs is initially quite adamant that he’s not the father at all. Most likely because he’s so deathly afraid of something that could emotionally compromise him to such a degree. No matter how Jobs may deny it, we can clearly see from the very start that he cares about Lisa. Which means in turn that he cares about what she thinks, and especially what she thinks about him. As the film continues, it becomes increasingly obvious that no one can really get under his skin the way Lisa can, which brings out so many new facets of Jobs and Fassbender’s performance.
The highest compliment I can pay to Steve Jobs is that it made me feel like I really was there at those three pivotal moments in Jobs’ history. I feel like everyone in the cast did a fantastic job of playing nuanced, three-dimensional characters. In particular, Michael Fassbender did a fine job of illustrating a deeply flawed man and why he came to be a legend. And through Jobs’ life story, we can find poignant themes of family, humility, art, technology, and a wide variety of other related subjects.
Couple all of that with a top-notch Aaron Sorkin script and fantastic direction from Danny Boyle, and you’ve got a movie that’s absolutely worth seeing.
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