The Aaron Sorkin-penned Steve Jobs biopic had a very scattered and uncertain development phase, with the project passing like a hot potato between studios, directors, and stars. That the final product turned out as brilliant as it has is a minor miracle. In the film there’s a bit of a running theme about the role of the conductor’s job being to “play the orchestra”, and the metaphor extends to this film; Steve Jobs is the result of the right screenwriter, the right cast members, the right director, the right composer, and countless others working in concert to produce movie magic.
I hesitate to use the word biopic because this is not necessarily a traditional one. The structure is tightened, with a focus on three segments of behind-the-scenes drama leading up to three separate product launches: the Apple Macintosh in 1984; the NeXT computer in 1988; and the iMac in 1998. The three-act structure gives this film the skeletal structure of a play, written in trademark Sorkinese, relying on the actors to carry the words as if they’re on stage.
And the three segments each feature check-in points with a few characters whose relationship with Steve Jobs (Michael Fassbender) evolves through the years. Marketing director and confidant Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), Apple CEO John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), Mac software engineer Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg), and Jobs’ daughter Lisa all appear in each act, and the familiarity of the people involved gives the overall story formal symmetry. Certain relationships have dramatic downswings, others fluctuate, and others remain consistent, but it’s always interesting to track them.
As in a play, the importance of the cast is even greater than usual. Fassbender has long since proved his ability to disappear into challengingly nuanced roles, and his Steve Jobs is no exception. While arrogant in the extreme as a semi-socially-bankrupt innovator (“artists lead, and hacks ask for a show of hands”), Fassbender is magnetic and the character is always more than just an intellectual anvil. The rest of the cast handles Sorkin’s tongue-twisters admirably as well, and are solid-to-exceptional across the board. As one example, the NeXT scene between Fassbender and Daniels is the film’s standout in my mind, bringing two actors toe-to-toe for excitement just as profound as in the most engaging action sequence. And the editing in that scene! It’s hands-down one of my favorite scenes of the year.
Director Danny Boyle is one of my favorites working today, and while at times he just lets his actors do their thing, a few trademarks of his show up. He always depicts such specific realities in his films, and this is apparent in the 1984 section, as it is converted to deliberately grainy stock. Also look for very choice and evocative Dutch shots, and a flourish involving a literal launch before a product launch. The visual storytelling is on point; just as Jobs and Wozniak drift further apart, their scenes are blocked literally father apart each successive time.
As a fan of screenwriter Sorkin, his script more than lives up to expectations, full of sharp barbs and quick insights. But I’d also like to draw attention to his treatment of the Steve Jobs character as a very flawed man, no punches pulled. Having gained perspective on events from consultation with the real-life major players (Wozniak, Hoffman, Sculley, Hertzfeld, and even daughter Lisa, who did not have contact with biographer Walter Isaacson), authenticity comes across in the screenplay. Jobs’ extraordinary capacities for both bad and good are present here, and the film has no trace of hagiography. At first blush Sorkin’s Jobs looks like a fairly typical misanthropic genius, but as the story winds down there is also the odd touch of schmaltz. Granted, the way a couple moments of sentimentality are portrayed don’t strike me as ideal, but the balance is there. The moments of warmth are earned, and help the egocentric material go down, and vice versa.
The rest of the production is well-done, with the standout being Daniel Pemberton’s super-cool score. While not always built to be listened to outside the context of the film, it underscores the action with a thrilling, bubbling spirit of innovation. Making fantastic use of the synthesizer, it also on occasion reminds me of a less in-your-face version of Henry Jackman’s Big Hero 6 score. And the score’s not one-note, as it’s sometimes downright operatic in conveying drama (the “Revenge” cue in particular).
It feels like Steve Jobs is playing to a metronome, and it’s pure entertainment to me. Even with the on-the-nose conductor/orchestra theme present in the film, it genuinely feels to me like the movie itself is being conducted more than directed, tuned more than edited. The complementary efforts of Sorkin, Boyle, the ensemble cast, and Pemberton are all of a piece. Despite the tightness of the story construction, this is a filmed environment I could have stood to spend more time in. 10/10.