A whirlwind glimpse into the personal and professional life of the Apple founder, competitor, and eventual CEO savoir, Steve Jobs is essentially a three-scene movie but it’s so rat-a-tat compelling that we’re glued to the screen throughout.
Writer Aaron Sorkin previously wrote The Social Network for director David Fincher, and he treads some similar ground here. But something about the Mark Zuckerberg story seemed to work better dramatically, and hit more timely nerves; by the end, Steve Jobs tends to get swallowed up in the cult of its titular character.
Still, Sorkin attempts something more interesting here: while Social Network told its story in somewhat conventional fashion, Steve Jobs confines itself to a trio of important scenes in the life and career of the man behind Apple.
That’s a good thing. Given the general knowledge of Steve Jobs already out there – in a wealth of biographies, documentaries (Alex Gibney’s comprehensive Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine was released earlier this fall), and fiction films including 2013’s rushed Jobs and the superior Pirates of the Silicon Valley – another rundown of familiar events wouldn’t have cut it.
Set during the minutes before three major product launches – 1984’s Macintosh, 1988’s NeXT, and 1998’s iMac – director Danny Boyle fills in gaps in the storyline with some voiceover newsreel stuff in-between the segments and a few other flourishes, occasionally painting the walls (literally) with images culled from the dialogue.
But apart from a few brief flashback scenes, the action in the film is entirely confined to the countdown until Jobs takes the stage at the launches. Major plot points in the film’s first act include getting the voice function on a computer to work and being able to turn the lights on the exit signs to envelope the audience in darkness. You wouldn’t expect the story to extract so much tension from these seemingly inconsequential elements, but that’s exactly what Sorkin does.
And kudos to the cast for selling it so well. Much of the work rests on the shoulders of Michael Fassbender, who doesn’t look or sound or feel like Jobs but manages to create a similarly enigmatic presence just the same. Ashton Kutcher was a more physically convincing Jobs in the 2013 film, but Fassbender helps create the kind of fascinating, multi-layered characterization that film was lacking.
The events of Steve Jobs, however, occasionally feel contrived: each of the featured supporting characters converge around Jobs right before his big launches, even when they probably shouldn’t be there, and certainly shouldn’t be causing so much trouble.
That includes ex-girlfriend Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston), and their daughter Lisa (played at different ages by Perla Haney-Jardine, Ripley Sobo, Makenzie Moss); Jobs’ changing relationship with his daughter makes up the bulk of his personal journey in the film.
Also kicking up dirt during the launches are Jobs’ personal assistant Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), 80s Apple CEO John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), developer Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg), and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen). I liked the tension between Jobs and Wozniak, though their scenes together harp on a single point; by the end, I felt the film, much like its protagonist, gives Woz the short shrift.
Director Danny Boyle wisely doesn’t let much get in the way of Sorkin’s breathless dialogue; the interplay between the actors keeps the story afloat while the staging and cinematography (by Alwin H. Küchler) subtly but convincingly captures the different eras presented in the film.
But Steve Jobs takes a giant misstep in its final scene, which envelops the lead character in a halo of light as he walks on the stage to introduce the iMac; now free of the personal conflict that weighed so heavily on him, Boyle seems to frame Jobs as a Christlike savoir ascending towards heaven. (A scene before that, referencing the invention of the iPod, also induces some groans).
Compare this to the brilliant ending of The Social Network, which climaxes on Mark Zuckerberg alone in that glass office – much more interesting, and dramatically satisfying. All the character tension Steve Jobs builds upon for much of the running time is released in a faux-happy ending whimper.
Those gripes aside, for a three-scene, dialogue-driven movie to be this engaging is remarkable. You likely know the story, but here’s a highly entertaining chance to spend some time with the players.