Steve Jobs was an asshole. There’s no denying that. I pity the gifted and talented people who worked with him and for him over the thirty-five years he raged across Silicon Valley. There’s also no denying he helped change our world. His vision drove those gifted and talented people to create things we had previously imagined only Dick Tracy or George Jetson could ever possess, and his genius led to ways of demonstrating to us how we couldn’t live without those things. Any two-hour attempt to tell even a portion of the story of his life with any accuracy is doomed to failure, and it is with just this one caveat that I give Steve Jobs praise.
While the opening credits state the film is “based on the book by Walter Isaacson,” I wonder if anybody can get sued for such an arguably false statement, as there isn’t much more that book and this movie have in common than the title. Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network, The American President, and gobs of episodes of "The West Wing") has crafted a fascinating three-act stage play depicting a character named “Steve Jobs” at three major events in Jobs’ life - the launch of the first Macintosh, the introduction of the NeXT workstation and the unveiling of the iMac. His whip-smart, rapid-fire dialogue, combined with Danny Boyle’s (Slumdog Millionaire) deft direction and some world-class acting all combine into an incredibly gripping character study.
Despite Boyle’s not being the first choice to direct this film, it’s apparent he found the material fascinating, possibly appealing to his interest in theater direction. His choice of utilizing different film formats (grainy 16-mm, standard 35-mm and crisp, high-def digital) for each of the movie’s three acts was brilliant, giving each period of time a distinctive look, evolving in quality over time, much as we hope the main character does. He keeps his camera moving about his characters as they also move in the pre-opening curtain nervousness before these product unveilings, and keeps the movie’s rat-a-tat pace from ever feeling rushed.
Sorkin’s screenplay doesn’t worry itself so much about any blow-by-blow depiction of actual events in Jobs’ life, instead using these three thirty-minute periods as the setting for showing how he interacted with the people in his life. He omits Jobs’ acquisition and re-invention of Pixar Animation Studios, and how his transformation of that company became another of his contributions to our culture. He omits Jobs’ happy marriage to Laurene Powell and their three children entirely. He combines conversations from various times in Jobs’ career, reintroduces people whom he never saw again, and depicts the poor relationship Jobs had with his first daughter as lasting much longer than it actually did, all of these in the name of dramatic license.
Michael Fassbender gives a tour-de-force performance as this tortured egomaniac, struggling to balance his emotion, his vision and his ambition (his looking absolutely nothing like his subject actually helped me accept the movie as fiction). Kate Winslet is fantastic as Joanna Hoffman, Apple’s marketing head-honcho for so many years and, at least as depicted here, the only one who could herd Jobs in any direction, physical or emotional. Even Seth Rogen as the teddy-bear Steven Wozniak gives a strong performance of a character who was never as forceful in reality as he is depicted here (Wozniak has praised the movie, but admits that he and Jobs never had any conversation as confrontational as their final one shown in the third act; he wasn’t even present at the latter two events depicted in the movie).
The emotional anchor of the story, however, is Jobs’ first daughter Lisa, played at three different ages by three wonderful young actresses (Makenzie Moss, Ripley Sobo and Perla Haney-Jardine). Sorkin uses this relationship’s evolution as a parallel for Jobs’ own evolution into a man who can finally admit that he is “poorly-made,” a startling admission from someone who is obsessed with perfection in his products.
To their credit, both Sorkin and Boyle have stated to the press that this film is not a “bio-pic,” choosing to call it an “impressionistic painting” instead, trying to capture the essence of Jobs and how he changed in the intervals between these three events in his life. Melding and mashing instances of numerous people entering and exiting Jobs’ life at various times into these three events makes for a never-dull, almost rapid-fire depiction of a personality, not a person. Watching this Steve Jobs-character gave me the impression I was seeing an evolution along the same lines as watching that of Charles Foster Kane, but moving a hell of a lot faster and reaching a happier conclusion.
Do not take my concerns with the movie’s accuracy, or lack thereof, as any displeasure with the finished product. Steve Jobs is a wonderful piece of filmed fiction. Any issues I have with this movie’s playing fast-and-loose with actual events are my own, and yet I can still accept this movie as the entertainment it is intended to be. If you enjoy seeing wonderful actors depicting smart people talking intelligently and emotionally about the problems they have with the world and with each other, then you should see this film. It will almost certainly be a Best Picture contender, and more than one cast member will be eyeing Oscar gold come next February.
However, If you want to know more about what the real Steve Jobs was like, you owe it to yourself to read Isaacson’s book, and even some others, afterwards.