It must be a monumental effort, making an engaging biopic about someone who didn’t much want to be engaged. Steve Jobs, the late co-founder of Apple, Inc., appears to have been such a person; given his reputation as a demanding perfectionist, an underhanded and manipulative salesman, an insubordinate visionary, a figurehead who accepted technical credit when his involvement in that field was minimal, an emotional recluse who initially refused to acknowledge Lisa Brennan-Jobs as his daughter, and his willingness to distance himself both privately and professionally from those who didn’t view situations as he viewed them, it seems clear, at least to me, that he had a Napoleonic drive to conquer and was not seeking respect or admiration.
How could such a person be the central character of a feature film? In order to invest in a story, we must invest in the very people that populate it. But if they actively work towards pushing other people away, if they’re so temperamental that they repel more than they attract, audiences are far less liable to make that investment. The makers of the 2013 film Jobs, the first Steve Jobs biopic, didn’t seem to understand this; despite a noteworthy performance by Ashton Kutcher, the title character was developed so superficially that we couldn’t overlook the deficits in his personality. We saw not a man but a myth … and a rather unpleasant one at that. We couldn’t find that shred of humanity to grasp onto. We couldn’t invest.
Two years have passed, and another stab has been made at telling Jobs’ life story. This time, it not only hits the mark but drives in deeply. Steve Jobs, under the direction of Danny Boyle and the writing of Aaron Sorkin, is one of the year’s great towering achievements – a probing, thoughtful, and surprisingly energetic film that makes an investment in the title character all too easy. Jobs is still depicted as an impossible, insensitive man, and yet, at long last, we’re given a reason to figure him out, to try and understand why he was the way he was. The filmmakers aren’t interested in the myth; they actually want to reveal the man. I haven’t read the Walter Isaacson biography on which the film is based, but being compiled out of numerous interviews with Jobs, his family, and his colleagues, it had to have been a great well for Sorkin to draw from.
As to the extent Jobs’ story has been dramatized for the sake of pacing and entertainment, I have no way of knowing. What I do know is that the film is a triumph of character development, tone, editing, and, as a further testament to the genius of Aaron Sorkin, dialogue. Here is a film we can listen to without any visual aids. Every sentence is a shining example of literate prose; when strung together, the characters have conversations that in and of themselves play like particularly taut one-act dramas. Some have observed that Sorkin’s writing is so rapid-fire and overwrought that it can be difficult to follow along with. If you’re anything like me, you don’t believe that it’s possible for anything well-worded to be considered overwrought, and you would be so wrapped up in the characters’ conversations that following along with them would be no trouble.
The film is intentionally structured to capture Jobs’ essence within the space of three vignettes, all set backstage at an Apple product launch, all taking place in different years and at different locations. The introduction of the Macintosh personal computer in 1984 serves as the backdrop of the first vignette, while the 1988 introduction of the NeXT workstation and the 1998 introduction of the iMac serve as the backdrops of the second and third vignettes respectively. In all three, insightful interactions between Steve Jobs (Michael Fassbender) and various other people are shown. These would include: Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), a professional confidant and occasional voice of reason; John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), who relinquished his presidency of Pepsi to become the CEO of Apple from 1983 to 1993; Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), the engineering mind behind the original Apple computers and co-founder of Apple, Inc.; Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg), a perpetually flustered programmer; Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston), Jobs’ financially and emotionally troubled ex-girlfriend; and Lisa Brennan (played successively by Perla Haney-Jardine, Ripley Sobo, and Makenzie Moss), whom Jobs initially refuses to accept as his daughter.
There are too many noteworthy scenes to discuss in detail, so I will instead focus on just one. It takes place in Cupertino in 1998, in the few remaining minutes before the doors of the Flint Center are opened and the first-generation iMac is launched. In a spectacular clash of egos, Wozniak, who was always more mechanically inclined than Jobs ever was, not only wants Jobs to acknowledge his technical contributions to Apple but also to pay tribute to the team behind one of the first Apple computers, the Apple II. Jobs, whose obsession with staying on the technological forefront doesn’t warrant looking back on the past, adamantly refuses. The ensuing verbal tennis match between the two Steves is not merely a pleasure to listen to, it also evokes the same level of tension as a scene in a particularly good courtroom drama. Steve Jobs is one of the year’s best films.