Earlier this year I had the pleasure of reading Walter Isaacson's incredible portrait of the tech icon Steve Jobs in preparation for this very movie and I found myself simply unable to put it down. I had always been fascinated by Jobs as a CEO unlike any other, a man I saw as responsible for products that completely revolutionized how I viewed computers, telephones and music.
But Isaacson's book also helped me grasp Jobs' incredibly difficult nature. He was one of the most stubborn and irritable people to work with and often had fractured relationships with many people due to his arrogant and driven nature. But as insufferable as he was, Jobs was wholly dedicated to creating some of the world's greatest ever products. Jobs didn't believe that art and products has to be independent of each other and in fact considered himself an artist above all, just as his idol Bob Dylan whose music is accurately prominent in this latest attempt to capture Jobs onscreen.
Isaacson's biography is an intricate and intimate examination of a very complex individual and probably comes as close as we'll ever get to knowing everything there was to know about the complicated visionary and the demons that drove him.
So of course something is immediately lost in the translation to the screen as the level of detail that is compiled in such a comprehensive overview of Jobs' life would be impossible. And instead of even attempting to cover such an eventful life in just two hours, screenwriter Aaron Sorkin chooses to focus on three of the most important product launches in Jobs' life: the unveiling of the Macintosh, his NeXT cube after he left Apple, and culminating with the launch of the iMac.
This is certainly a clever idea because if there was anything Steve Jobs’ life revolved around it was the launch of his products, but the fact that Sorkin now must pack in all the drama and relationships formed over a person’s life into three very specific events does get a bit maddening at times. Steve Jobs certainly didn’t have three life-defining conversations with CEO John Sculley, marketing director Joanna Hoffman, co-founder Steve Wozniak, and his estranged daughter Lisa Brennan at each of them, but I can understand why they were all included. This is a biopic after all, and Sorkin needs some human drama at the center of these tech talks. So while the bold new format to this biopic is certainly novel, it does require a bit of truth-stretching.
Luckily though, Steve Jobs is helped massively by scene after scene of predictably zippy and clever dialogue from Aaron Sorkin, all delivered by a massively talented cast. Michael Fassbender proves once again he is arguably the best actor working today, imitating Jobs’ high-pitched nasal voice but still managing to fully inhabit Jobs’ arrogant and calculating nature. Jeff Daniels is also an excellent casting as tepid CEO John Sculley, Jobs’ reluctant father figure in his turbulent time at Apple, and Seth Rogen is surprisingly confident as Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak.
And while the film wants to explore Jobs’ up-and-down relationships with Sculley and Wozniak among others, ultimately this attempt to capture Jobs onscreen is about his fractured relationship with his illegitimate daughter Lisa, whom Jobs famously denied ever fathering for a number of years. It’s a relationship that is of course rife with potential for human drama, and Sorkin chooses to explore it as the biggest contradiction of Jobs’ life: that he himself likely felt rejected by his birth parents, but ultimately it took him a very long time to grasp that he was rejecting his own daughter in a similar way. It’s certainly the script’s most compelling element, even if I personally would’ve liked to see Jobs’ ultimately more important relationships with his wife and other children explored at least to a certain degree.
For such a dialogue-heavy film, Steve Jobs certainly needed some solid direction and Danny Boyle absolutely excels. Though its events take place entirely before the year 2000, Boyle's sensibilities lie fully in the 21st century, full of color and life that give so many scenes of backstage exchanges between two characters a crackling dynamism. Beautifully photographed by Boyle’s former Sunshine collaborator Alwin H. Küchler, Boyle’s direction gives Sorkin’s script the zip that it needs to separate itself from the pack. His use of frame inserts to invoke flashbacks, the brisk but clever transitions between all three acts, and his use of visuals to both convey information and illustrate Sorkin’s dialogue all turn what would’ve essentially been a well-acted stage play into something that’s gripping and totally cinematic.
I recommend that if you want the more real and nuanced portrait of the enigma that was Steve Jobs, pick up Walter Isaacson's excellent biography upon which this movie is supposedly based. But Steve Jobs the film is a vibrant fire-cracker take on the Hollywood biopic. Decidedly brisk but somehow managing to pack in a compelling amount of human drama into product launches, it's easily the most worthy portrayal of Jobs yet and probably the best we're going to get committed to screen. Confident direction from Boyle combined with a sizzling Sorkin script allows sparks to fly, even if some parts fizz out instead.