Steve Jobs

Were you to go into Steve Jobs having no idea who Steve Jobs was, Steve Jobs wouldn’t really tell you. The character (played by Michael Fassbender) explains to a pissed-off Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen) at one point that he “play[s] the orchestra” like a symphony conductor — but as Wozniak points out, it’s one of those sentences that sounds cool but doesn’t really mean anything in concrete terms.

For most biopics, this would be a failing, but for a Steve Jobs biopic in 2015, it’s an asset. We don’t need a movie to tell us who Steve Jobs is as a tech guru. I’m currently typing this review on my Apple keyboard, which is linked to my MacBook Air, with my iPhone 6 by my side; I know exactly who Steve Jobs, Apple CEO, is. Steve Jobs feels a revelation because it exposes Steve Jobs, the man. 

Directed by Danny Boyle and written by Aaron Sorkin, Steve Jobs unfolds in the minutes leading up to three product launches: the Macintosh in 1984, the NeXT in 1988, and the iMac in 1998. At each event, Steve is confronted by friends and family as his “work wife” Johanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet at her best) tries desperately to manage him. (By the third time this happens, Steve asks in exasperation if everyone he knows meets at a bar beforehand to plot ways to attack him.) There are occasional flashbacks, but as with many Sorkin scripts the focus is on the conversations at hand. It gives Steve Jobs the feel of a stage play, although there are enough cinematic flourishes to keep it from feeling too airless.

Boyle takes great care to give each of the three acts its own tone and feel. Each is shot in a different style — 1984 in 16 mm, 1988 in 32 mm, and 1998 in hi-def digital. Each has its own look — the opulent, operatic 1988 setting is worlds away from the sleek, glass-and-chrome backdrop of 1998. And each has its own Steve Jobs, as we watch him evolve over the years from an asshole genius to… well, still an asshole genius, but a slightly older and wiser one.

Tying them all together are a rock-solid cast led by Fassbender, who proves yet again that physical resemblance is overrated when it comes to biopics. He’s mesmerizing in a way that allows us to understand the power Jobs held over people, and he delivers Sorkinese like a first language. But it’s the quieter details that really bring his Jobs to life — the troubled look in his eye when he looks at the daughter he won’t acknowledge, or the way his wiry frame softens ever-so-slightly around his most trusted colleague Johanna. In those moments, Steve Jobs goes from a billboard-sized icon to a flesh-and-blood man.

It’s not simply that the Steve Jobs of Steve Jobs is flawed. Plenty of biopics portray their subjects as deeply imperfect, only to excuse or glamorize their worst qualities. Indeed, the real Steve Jobs gets plenty of that — just look at how often stories of his epic dickishness end with “but, y’know, he invented Apple.” (I’m paraphrasing.) Boyle and Sorkin dispense with the mythologizing, and instead offer an intimate look at a man who could be petty and cruel and self-delusional, but also charming and sensitive and even, in his own broken way, loving. At point, Job sniffs, “The nature of people is something to overcome.” But the very best thing about this portrayal of him is how tragically, messily human he seems.

After the masterful first two acts, the third is a bit of a letdown. None of Steve Jobs is what you’d call naturalistic, but the developments in and between the first two acts felt, at least, organic. While every bit as engrossing as the first two, the third act begins to ring false as Boyle and Sorkin rush to tie everything up in a nice, Hollywood-friendly bow. A character has a sudden crisis of conscience, seemingly just because a certain storyline needs to come to a climax. Another resurfaces to carry on a 15-year-old conversation, so that the filmmakers can explicitly spell out themes the audience may have missed in the first two acts.

The need for resolution is understandable. This is a film, not real life, and it wouldn’t be satisfying if it ended on a seemingly random note. But a touch of ambiguity, or at minimum an acknowledgement that our protagonist still has a long way to go, would been welcome. Mad Men, another recent story about an irredeemable asshole, ended with both, and felt truer for it. Steve Jobs ends on a moment of triumph for Jobs, and not just because 1998 was the year he introduced the iMac. By the time he’s lit like an angel, glowing white outline and all, it all feels like a bit much.

But hey, Shakespeare didn’t always stick the landing either. And with its rhythmic dialogue, its grand theatricality, its tragically conflicted lead, and the ghosts who resurface to remind him of bad deeds past, Steve Jobs really does seem to follow in the Bard’s tradition. But not Shakespeare the way you learn about him in English class, as an untouchable old master who wrote about faraway kings who talked funny. Shakespeare the way he feels in a really good production — like something that’d cry out and bleed if you cut it open.

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