**** out of ****
for strong language
Released: October 9, 2015 limited; wide October 23
Runtime: 122 minutes
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Seth Rogen, Jeff Daniels, Michael Stuhlbarg, Katherine Waterston
Steve Jobs is ranked #7 on my Top Ten List for 2015
From start to finish, everything you see in Steve Jobs never happened. But it’s all true.
Staged in three separate acts – each set backstage during the final lead-up to three major product launches – screenwriter Aaron Sorkin and director Danny Boyle completely redefine an entire cinematic genre. It’s fitting, then, that the subject they use to do that is one who redefined the modern world.
Biopics, long built as cradle-to-grave highlights, have been going through a renaissance of late. The recent trend, and improvement, has been to focus on a specific event in a person’s life that captures the essence of what that entire life was all about (Lincoln and Selma are great examples). Now, Steve Jobs takes that trend and infuses (a.k.a. artfully crams) an entire life into a trio of brief defining moments. This literal impossibility is achieved through an inspired structure and, more importantly, a bold stroke: using broad fictionalization to be accurate.
The three events are: the 1984 launch of Apple’s Macintosh, the 1988 launch of NeXT (Jobs’ non-Apple foray into personal computing) and, upon Jobs return to Apple, the 1998 launch of the iMac. We never see the presentations themselves. We see the drama unfolding behind the scenes. And the drama is completely manufactured. Yet through the liberties Sorkin takes, he and Boyle give us the truth.
In explosive (and explosively rich) conversations that are patently Sorkin, each backstage dramatization begins to reveal Steve Jobs’ entire life: his achievements and failures, his origins and psyche, his strengths and weaknesses – two traits that aren’t simply separate sides of the same coin; they’re expressed in complex, symbiotic unity at all times, inextricably linked.
In essence, Sorkin – whose roots are in the theatre – adapts his script to the limitations of the stage, and then Boyle expands that for the screen. In each act, as the clock ticks down toward Steve taking the stage, they invent confrontations for Jobs (Michael Fassbender, an instant Best Actor frontrunner) with the most important people of his life: Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winselt), Jobs’ right-hand Svengali; Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogan, in a career-best turn), the brains of Apple that incarnated Jobs’ vision; John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), the Pepsi CEO who jumped ship to help Jobs launch the Apple empire; Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg), an original and lead member of the Apple Development team; and most personally, Jobs’ ex-girlfriend and estranged daughter.
It’s absurd to think that these exchanges – both heated and intimate – all happened right before three major product launches with the same exact people each time; of course they didn’t. But it’s through these fictionalized conversations that Steve Jobs is revealed. His adoption at birth that formed him, the vision he refused to compromise, the ego that fueled invention while simultaneously destroying people. He wasn’t just an egomaniacal jerk; he was cruel, with a malice that was shockingly oblivious when it wasn’t deliberately going for the jugular. The actual details of Jobs’ life emerge organically as they become relevant in each escalating argument; always natural and motivated, never as forced exposition. That only happens when the acting, writing, and directing are all in top form.
So we get all of the life highlights, but instead of reenacting them through a linear dirge, we get them via hot-blooded fights, fond recollections, harsh indictments, and searing judgments. This script doesn’t resemble the lauded (and thick) biography by Walter Isaacson on which it’s based, and makes for as loose an adaptation as one could imagine, but it gives us what Isaacson revealed – all through a mesmerizing tour-de-force ensemble. Steve Jobs gets to an inherent truth about the man and crucial historical moments in Apple’s history. It may be impossible for the average viewer to determine how close to the truth it gets, but there’s no denying that Steve Jobs pulsates as a provocative excavation of narcissistic virtuosity.
So deep and personal is the portrayal that one might guess the whole thing is actually a way for Sorkin to examine – and confront – himself. Indeed, like so many scripts before this, Sorkin approaches his protagonist in the same way Woody Allen does; not by creating a distinct and unique character but, rather, a cipher of himself. Sorkin just happens to do it, and often, with real-life people. It’s not just Jobs’ genius that’s on display here, or only his demons being exorcised. They’re Sorkin’s too.
Thankfully, it’s someone other than Sorkin who’s presenting it all. Sorkin and his own infamous ego are at their best when superior directors have the final say on his scripts. When left to his own authority (like as a TV show-runner for The West Wing and The Newsroom), Sorkin’s voice is relentlessly heavy-handed. It can brandish a patronizing smugness that makes you resent his intellect rather than respect it (much like, fittingly enough, Steve Jobs).
Yet when disciplined and honed by contrary sensibilities from auteurs like David Fincher (The Social Network) and Bennett Miller (Moneyball), Sorkin’s writing becomes the best version of itself. The condescension is gone but his voice remains. In this case, it’s Danny Boyle – the Oscar-winning director of Slumdog Millionaire – that not only reins in Sorkin but even his own kinetic style. Boyle’s visual approach is his most restrained to date, but it works.
Boyle’s flashy editorial signatures are largely absent but his camera still shows off a visual flair, from hypnotic angles and imposed video backdrops, to employing three separate film stocks (16mm, 35mm, and digital) appropriate to each time period. The energy here is in the dialogue and performances, not the editorial assembly; being too visually hyper would only distract. Still, Boyle’s aesthetic remains, including how he weaves vital flashbacks into fiercely disputed memories, creating a volatile context.
Sorkin’s voice is also best expressed when scrutinizing culture rather than politics. With politics, Sorkin writes about complicated people trying to be noble, and that’s when his work starts to think too much of itself. But here, Jobs doesn’t have nobility on his mind, only greatness. As a welcome consequence, Sorkin’s script doesn’t carry the baggage of self-import, even as it tells the story of someone who does. Instead, it excels at psychoanalysis – of a global icon, no less – and in a hugely entertaining way.
In the end, Steve Jobs doesn’t justify its arrogant figure or let him off the hook. If anything, it grills him right to the very end. But he always remains complex; easy to judge but difficult to damn. We may be aghast by his lack of humanity, but we can – and should – still appreciate what he did for humanity. Only a film this good, this incendiary, this challenging and moving, enables us to contemplate his deep personal flaws while admiring his history-making triumphs.