Steve Jobs is not only one of the most fascinating people of the 20th and 21st centuries but also one of the most influential. Co-founder of Apple Inc., his technological innovations have affected the very fabric of society. Just think about how omnipresent iTunes, iPads, iPods and iPhones are in our lives. He was a visionary with ambition to burn and a carefully crafted and distinctive public persona. It would seem only natural that his life would be ripe for cinematic treatment. Shortly after his death in 2011, Ashton Kutcher portrayed the man in a biopic entitled Jobs that performed modestly at the box office and was savaged by critics.
It only took a couple years for Hollywood to try again with Steve Jobs (2015), but this time with considerable pedigree in front of and behind the camera with Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire) directing a screenplay written by Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network) and starring Michael Fassbender (Shame) and Kate Winslet (Revolutionary Road). The film opened wide and failed to meet its lofty projections despite going up against weaker movies. How could a film with that much artistic power fail to connect with audiences? Post-mortems done after it was pulled from theaters after only two weeks felt that the studio should have released it gradually, letting word-of-mouth build, that Fassbender wasn’t enough of a mainstream draw, that Jobs fatigue had set in, and that the nature of the film was difficult to market.
The film’s structure eschews the traditional biopic formula of a cradle to grave telling by adopting a three-act format with each one taking place right before the launch of a key product. The first act thrusts us immediately into crisis mode as Jobs (Fassbender) and his team are about to launch the Apple Macintosh in 1984. He wants the computer to say, “Hello,” but engineer Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg) tells him that it can’t be fixed in time, much to his boss’ chagrin.
The stakes couldn’t be any higher for the fledgling company as Jobs points out that two days prior they ran an television advertisement during the Super Bowl that more people remembered than who won the actual game. “Look at their faces when they see what it is. They won’t know what they’re looking at or why they like it but they’ll know they want it.” This key line of dialogue spoken in the first act demonstrates one of the man’s key strengths – knowing what people wanted even before they did. He was able to do this because he was a master manipulator, both on a large scale, and on a personal level, like how he browbeats his staff to do the seemingly impossible.
For example, there is a scene where Jobs chastises Hertzfeld for being unable to fix the Mac before launch: “You didn’t have seconds you had three weeks. The universe was created in a third of that time.” His employee responds without missing a beat, “Well, some day you’ll have to tell us how you did it.” Jobs lays into the man and threatens to humiliate him publicly. This scene is indicative of the kind of scintillating dialogue that Sorkin populates Steve Jobs with and the cast delivers it with blistering intensity.
The second act takes place four years later with Jobs launching the NeXT Computer, the crown jewel of his new company NeXT, which he founded after being fired by Apple when the Mac failed to sell. This act is less about the launch then it is about how Jobs was fired from Apple. His ego was out of control and his refusal to compromise was severely damaging the company. Through the rhythm of editing and the increasing tempo of music on the soundtrack, the film gradually builds to a crescendo as the hammer comes down on Jobs.
The third act takes place in 1998 as Jobs has rejoined Apple as CEO and is about to launch the iMac in what becomes a personal and professional triumph for the man. This final segment also attempts to humanize Jobs a bit and shed more light on his personal relationships with co-workers and loved ones.
Michael Fassbender jumps full on into the role as he portrays a brilliant, arrogant man that expects to get his way, like when he tells an assistant that they must turn off the exit signs in the room where the product launch is to take place. When she informs him that the fire marshal will not allow this he replies, “You explained to the fire marshal that we’re in here changing the world,” to which she tells him, “I did. But unless we can also change the property of fire he doesn’t care.” Jobs comes back with a very Sorkian response: “If a fire causes a stampede to the unmarked exits it’ll have been well worth it for those who survived. For those who don’t, less so but still pretty good.” Fassbender’s timing is on fire and this exchange is hilarious.
The film doesn’t shy away from Jobs’ less savory aspects, like his ugly confrontation with ex-girlfriend Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston) who claims that he is the father of her daughter Lisa. He is cold and cruel to her and Fassbender is unafraid to go there. Jobs’ solution with his ex is to continually throw money at her until she goes away. While the actor doesn’t look like the real man he finds a way to convey the essence of him in a way that Kutcher didn’t. Of course, he had much better material to work with thanks to Sorkin’s exceptional screenplay.
Kate Winslet as Joanna Hoffman, marketing executive for Apple, and Jobs’ confidant, matches Fassbender beat for beat. She is the voice of reason (“Do you want to try being reasonable, just, you know, see what it feels like?”) that keeps him in check when his ego threatens to take over. She also acts as his therapist and his sounding board. The actress portrays Joanna as extremely patient and strong-willed – she has to be going up against someone like Jobs. Winslet utilizes a nicely understated Polish accent and disappears into the role with her customary passion. Joanna serves as the film’s anchor for she is the constant through-line in all three acts as Jobs’ most loyal ally.
In a rare dramatic turn, Seth Rogen portrays Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple. He pops up briefly in the first act asking Jobs to acknowledge the people responsible for the Apple II, the company’s best-selling product at the time. He gets much more substantial screen-time in the second act when Woz confronts Jobs over his failings at Apple and the problems with the NeXT Computer. He tries to appeal to their long-time friendship and Rogen digs deep, demonstrating some terrific dramatic chops. He also deftly handles Sorkin’s rapid-fire dialogue and the technical computer jargon with ease.
For a film that is very dialogue-heavy, Danny Boyle covers a lot of ground with his restless camera, which conveys Jobs’ agile mind and his demanding nature. Finally, this energetic filmmaker gets to do Sorkin’s trademark walk and talk scenes and nails it. If there was ever a filmmaker born to do them it was Boyle. That being said, he tones down his trademark hyperactive kinetic energy in favor of a more poised approach. It is nice to see him change things up and let the actors and their dialogue have a greater emphasis. That’s not to say Steve Jobs is boring to look at – far from it – but he lets the actors provide the fireworks with their riveting performances.
It is a ballsy choice not to show the actual launches as that would be the traditional thing to do. The launches are well-documented – what happened before is not so widely known and ripe for dramatic interpretation. Steve Jobs is a fascinating portrait of a complex man. In many respects, it would make a good double bill with The Social Network (2010), also penned by Sorkin, as both films are about distant, megalomaniacal geniuses that made hugely influential advances in technology to feed their gigantic egos and in the process changed the world by affecting peoples’ daily lives.
It is easy to see why Steve Jobs wasn’t a commercial success. It doesn’t play by traditional biopic rules and features an unlikable protagonist. It eschews ingratiating itself for taking an unflinching look at a genius. The film sheds light on the man who was cruel to those around him. He was brilliant and didn’t care about what people thought of him and his inability or unwillingness to make personal connections ultimately makes him a tragic figure.