I have never understood the broad cultural fascination with Steve Jobs. Yes, it’s obvious he’s an important figure in the tech industry, but for the life of me, I’ve never been able to figure out what he did, or perhaps more importantly, why he was valuable. Yes, yes, yes, that probably makes me a heretic in some eyes but I’m with the Imperial Inquisition, so I decide what’s heresy.
The practical upshot of this is that I’m not overly receptive to books and movies devoted to him, since I’ve never been able to figure out why he deserves them (which is probably why I found 2013’s fawning Jobs biopic so utterly tedious). But I didn’t need to fear: If there’s one type of biopic Hollywood likes to make, outside the “This person was awesome” biopic, it’s the “This famous person was an asshole,” biopic.
The film, starring Michael Fassbender as Jobs, divides itself into 3 roughly 45 minute frames of Jobs’ life, namely the minutes before the product launches of three of his most famous products. The first bit focuses on him in 1984, directly before he first presented the Macintosh. The second is directly before the reveal of the NeXT Computer (remember THAT debacle?). The third is directly before the launch of the iMac.
Within these three frames, the film manages to explore several aspects of Jobs’ life. Most notably it explores the relationship with his daughter Lisa, his controlling and borderline abusive management style which is tempered by his marketing guru and longtime companion Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), his often confrontational friendship with Apple Co-Founder Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen) and of course, his complicated relationship with Apple CEO and father figure John Sculley (Jeff Daniels).
Telling a nearly 15 year story in three, 45 minute windows is no easy task, especially when the tale being told has been told and retold so many times it borders on tech world mythology at this point. It’s also difficult to take one of the biggest names in tech, one that everyone knows, and show him as an anti-social, hyper perfectionist asshole, lying to the people he’s presenting to, snarling insults and threats to his teams and cruelly denying his paternity of his daughter, while simultaneously having a character, one who has been established as one of the smartest and most level headed in the movie, question his importance.
It’s good then that the movie manages to pull it off. I’m no fan of Steve Jobs the person, but Steve Jobs the movie is a well written, brilliantly acted, and superbly directed biopic. It takes those 45 minute windows and, through careful use of flashbacks, discussions about past events, and hints about the future, tell an entire story, even giving Jobs himself something of a character arc. I was more involved and on the edge of my seat during an argument about Jobs being ousted by Apple’s board than I was during any of the action beats in Avengers or Mission Impossible.
The two big keys to this movie’s success are screenwriter Aaron Sorkin and director Danny Boyle. Sorkin is an oddity, one of the most well known and famous screenwriters to the general public, but also one with a litany of flaws and obvious limitations. His screenplays are overly talkative, his characters often sound the same, he’s not great at writing women. If he wasn’t so good at story structure and character work, he’d probably be out on his ear.
But here, as in this movie’s closest relative The Social Network (another tech-focused recently set biopic, about a subject I cared nothing about, but turned out to be surprisingly good), his screenplay works. Perhaps it’s simply because the tech world is one of the few places outside of politics that his brand of overly talkative dialogue feels natural, or maybe it’s because the real world sexism of the tech field in the 80s and 90s means that he doesn’t have too many female characters to worry about, but the screenplay is great, deftly handling the story in a way that feels natural, despite jumping over 5 years in a single cut.
Now Danny Boyle, everyone knows he’s a genius, even if his career has been somewhat up and down recently (I’m still a big fan of 127 Hours, even while I recognize that a lot of that credit has to go to James Franco). But he does great here, with a good sense of how to edit dialogue heavy scenes (which, let’s be honest, is all of them) to keep them energetic and engaging.
With all that excellence from the writing and directing, the acting almost feels like an afterthought, although it clearly wasn’t for the actors. Fassbender is, of course, the big draw (he’s rapidly becoming a staple of my best of the year lists), and he’s incredible. He’s also playing the only person who’s famous enough for me to get a bead on how well he relates to his real person. I also find that separating him from the carefully coordinated public persona, by never letting us see his public performances, also gives us an idea of who the movie thinks Jobs was behind the scenes. And the movie thinks he was a belligerent perfectionist, too concerned with his own vision of what a computer should be to realize he’s hurting everyone around him.
The rest of the actors more or less swirl around Fassbender, although that seems more like a stylistic choice than a flaw. Winslet’s Joanna is the exception, hanging around the movie the entire time, trying (and failing) to keep Jobs under control, and she’s as good as she usually is in the role, even if it isn’t an exceptionally demanding role. Of the other actors, Rogen is the big standout in my mind, although that could be because he’s the only one to ask the all important question “What do you do?”
I wished we could have seen more of Jeff Daniels though; He only shows up extraordinarily briefly, towards the end of each segment and he’s always great when he makes it to the screen. His confrontation with Jobs in the middle of the second segment is the highlight of the movie and between this and his excellent role in the even more excellent The Martian, he’s angling for multiple spots on the best of the year list. And while I’m whining, it’s good that the movie avoids many of the common biopic traps, when it falls into the “Oooh, guess what I’m gonna do later” trap, it falls hard.
It’s too late for me to hope that Steve Jobs isn’t a flop, as by the time I found enough time to catch it, it was already on its way out of theaters. I can’t help but think people are going to be regretting that in a few months when it hits DVD, gets a bunch of award nominations, and people start seeing it. Don’t wait that long. If Steve Jobs is still playing near you, it’s probably the best thing in that theater.
…Unless The Martian is still playing.
Elessar is a 25 year old Alaskan born cinephile and he wished he’d had time to discuss Lisa’s role in the movie more.
– fantastic writing and directing
– great lead performance from Fassbender
– unique way of presenting the story
– not enough Jeff Daniels
– makes some annoying winks the audience towards the end