Just as he did with Mark Zuckerberg and the creation of Facebook in The Social Network, screenwriter Aaron Sorkin has taken another modern tech giant and built a talky, fast-paced and relentlessly entertaining script around him. Written by Sorkin and directed with surprising restraint by Danny Boyle, Steve Jobs eschews standard biopic conventions to zero in on three crucial nights in the career of the man who became known as Apple’s great innovator but had a tumultuous life, both professionally and personally.
The film plays out like a three act play, each one covering the moments leading up to an important product launch, with the occasional introduction of flashbacks to flesh out key relationships. The first act covers the launch of the original MacIntosh in 1984, an all-in-one desktop that’s supposed to resemble a smiling face and say hello to its users. The film then jumps to 1988 and the launch of the NeXT, a black, cubical machine Jobs designed after his ousting from Apple. Finally, the film shows the Jobs most will be familiar with: the short, greying hair, round glasses and black turtleneck, launching the iMac in 1998.
Each of these sections is shot differently, shifting from 16mm to 35mm and finally digital, giving each one a distinctive look and feel beyond the evolving fashions and hairstyles. The camera follows Jobs backstage in something pretty close to real time as he frantically prepares to greet his admirers and unveil his latest product but is continually interrupted by a series of visitors. It’s through these often spiky exchanges that Sorkin delves into the Jobs character, going beneath the philosopher he came to be known as and presenting him as a petty, bullish control freak, filled with complete self-belief but not a trace of empathy.
As Jobs, Michael Fassbender overcomes the complete lack of resemblance by giving a fiercely cerebral, alpha-male performance, unafraid of portraying a character who is deeply unlikable. With every act set before a product launch, there’s a ticking clock element to almost every scene that means we’re always getting Jobs at peak stress level, his patience tested by the demands of those around him, their failure to acknowledge him and his presentation as the most important thing in the universe both baffling and frustrating to him.
Among those vying for Jobs’ attention backstage are a handful of very strong supporting performances: Seth Rogen is sympathetic as Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak; Michael Stuhlbarg gets frequently chewed out as engineer Andy Hertzfeld; and Kate Winslet’s Joanna Hoffman, the marketing guru who provides the film – and Jobs – with a conscience, calling him out on his failings in an admittedly wobbly Polish accent that somehow manages to get thicker as the film goes on.
If Hoffman is the film’s conscience then the heart comes from Jobs’ daughter Lisa, played through the different acts by Makenzie Moss, Ripley Sobo and Penny Hanley-Jardine at the ages of five, nine and nineteen respectively. Particularly in the first act, Jobs refuses to acknowledge Lisa as his daughter, coming up with stats and numbers to prove that it isn’t possible despite all evidence pointing to the contrary. This rankles with Lisa’s mother Chrisann (Katherine Waterston, brilliant) who is on welfare and has to battle to get child support from a man on his way to becoming a billionaire.
That dichotomy between Jobs the digital messiah and Jobs the deadbeat dad is central to the film. At one point Jobs concedes that he is “poorly made”, referring to his own shortcomings in the same way he would refer to a substandard product. His drive for design perfection totally overrides his basic human decency and he leaves his daughter living with a woman struggling, financially and mentally, which understandably takes its toll on her.
Just as Jobs is an absentee father, the script explores his own daddy issues, using his adoption as a possible reason behind his desperate need to achieve perfection and make himself special. This comes to a head through his scenes with Jeff Daniels’ John Sculley, former Apple CEO and surrogate father figure who – like everyone else here – has a tumultuous relationship with Jobs.
As this is an Aaron Sorkin film – moreso than it is a Danny Boyle film, so dominant is Sorkin’s style – all of this plays out in a heightened, theatrical style as the characters bat back and forth Sorkin’s rapid fire dialogue at a hundred-miles-a-minute. None of it particularly sounds like real life and certainly the structure is contrived, but that level of artifice never makes it any less enjoyable.
The film is essentially a series of tense conversations, often held as the characters march between different rooms, but these scenes of dense dialogue are often as thrilling as any action scene. The decision to set each act before a product launch is genius, giving every scene a ticking clock element that adds an extra level of tension to all of these exchanges.
The only bum note comes via an overly neat, sentimental ending that is disappointingly simplistic and conventional. Nonetheless, what precedes it is a massively entertaining and endlessly quotable Aaron Sorkin tour-de-force that’s snappy, tense and ultimately moving in its portrayal of a divisive cultural icon.