It’s been four years since Steve Jobs passed away, and since then, no shortage of biographers and filmmakers (not to mention his friends and enemies) have tried to get beneath the messianic myth and divine what made the Apple CEO tick. But whose version of Jobs are we supposed to believe? Was he a Zen Edison visionary who gave technology its soul? Or was he a prickly, self-promoting narcissist who ruled through humiliation and fear? In Danny Boyle’s kaleidoscopic new biopic, Steve Jobs, he’s both: equal parts beautiful mind and bully. In one of the best, most revealing lines in Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay, Jobs (played brilliantly by Michael Fassbender) admits after being called out by a mistreated friend, “I’m poorly made.” Even in a rare introspective moment, Jobs seemed to regard himself as an insanely great machine with a flawed operating system.
Adapted by Sorkin from Walter Isaacson’s 2011 biography, Boyle’s film unspools like an impressionistic triptych, focusing on the unveiling of three of Jobs’ most important product launches: the Macintosh in 1984, his calamitous NeXT computer in 1988, and the first iMac in 1998, when he triumphantly returned like a prodigal son to the company he founded in a garage with his childhood pal Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen). For the most part, this structure works. Each chapter symbolizes a critical crossroads in Jobs’ career. And Boyle, who’s always been one of our most playful visual stylists, shoots each section using different film stocks (16mm, 35mm, and digital) to subliminally reboot the audience’s expectations. Every section crackles with exquisite rat-a-tat dialogue (Sorkin has no peer in this regard, with the possible exception of Preston Sturges 70 years ago), but there’s something too mannered and convenient in this three-part setup. In each of the film’s chapters, as Jobs frantically prepares to debut his latest gee-whiz gadget for an auditorium full of Apple’s Kool-Aid-drinking zealots, he locks verbal horns with the same six characters. There’s Rogen’s Wozniak, who’s tired of being the Ringo to Jobs’ John Lennon; Apple’s onetime chairman John Sculley (Jeff Daniels); Jobs’ browbeaten chief programmer Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg); his marketing head and confidante Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet); and his ex (Katherine Waterston), whose daughter Lisa becomes the film’s Rosebud as Jobs struggles to acknowledge his paternity.
Each appears backstage before every launch, but they’re more like triggering devices than real people. I happen to be one of those folks who think there’s nothing easier on the ear than a florid Sorkin walk-and-talk with its metaphorical arias and smartypants speeches. But it works better on a sitcom than in a biopic that has some responsibility of capturing reality. Maybe that’s why as sharp and slick as Steve Jobs is, it ends up feeling more interested in entertainment than enlightenment. B