Danny Boyle and Aaron Sorkin's film, Steve Jobs, defies convention in almost every way. Split into three distinct acts, the movie is like a play: No one ever shuts up and everything happens indoors. Meanwhile, the film plays out like a passion project instead of a greatest hits album, the usual biopic convention. The movie narrowly examines Jobs before three high pressure product launches. It envelops us in the paradox: How could the Apple co-founder be admired and hated at the same time?
Directed by Boyle and written by Sorkin, Steve Jobs is based on Walter Isaacson's authorized biography of the title character and structured in a triptych of moments—the Mac launch, the NeXT launch, and the iMac launch. Setting the action entirely in the 40 minutes leading up to each event does a couple things: It makes a rock star out of Jobs, who is the center of every room, and it makes a film composed entirely of conversations feel frantic, thanks to the constant running clock. Steve has to be onstage. This is the modern result of Citizen Kane, complete with a Rosebud near the end.
In 1984, Jobs (Michael Fassbender) is prepping the launch of Apple's new Macintosh home computer at a gathering in Cupertino, CA which would become Apple's hometown. The Mac is Jobs' baby, a closed system, unlike the Apple II, that says "Hello" when you start it up. It should anyway, but doesn't. This first act is chiefly devoted to Jobs strong-arming his chief software engineer Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg) into rigging a solution while marketing head Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet) acts as the boss' "work wife." Katherine Waterston also shows up as Chrisann Brennan, a woman who insists Jobs is the father of her 5-year-old daughter, Lisa. The long-haired Jobs denies it, citing algorithmic support, but guess what he named the Mac's predecessor?
The first act presents Jobs as a single-minded dictator. He's self-righteous and petty, but as the film goes on, we notice changes. He softens and starts letting people in. Plus, Sorkin's script smartly includes vivid flashback sequences that illustrate the present, especially the relationship between Jobs and his big brother figure John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), the erstwhile Apple CEO whom Jobs hired and was eventually fired by. Sculley answers to the shareholders: Jobs answers to no one. On his way out the door, Jobs tells him, "Artists lead and hacks ask for a show of hands." Sorkin's script is full of killer lines like this.
The firing is never seen but it sets the stage for the rest of Jobs' career. The Macintosh fails miserably. Geeks hate the closed system and it's too expensive. So Jobs starts another company, NeXT, and the second act picks up there, in 1988. Jobs is still washing off the stink from the Mac. But he has a secret motivation that's revealed later to Hoffman in the film's most satisfying moment. In an instant, Hoffman's disgust turns to admiration and we see how genius creates a legend.
In 1998, Jobs' plan has come to fruition. He' sells NeXT to Apple for its operating system platform and takes millions of shares and interim CEO status as part of the deal. Fully in the driver's seat, Fassbender appears as the Jobs we remember: black turtleneck, jeans, and glasses. And his third and final presentation is for the iMac, a computer which would reinvent the company and put it on the path to retail stores and billions in profits.
Backstage, Hoffman's had it. Years after denying paternity, Jobs is now refusing to pay for Lisa's Harvard tuition. Winslet, quietly patient with her abusive boss the entire film, explodes at him and you can see Jobs begin to come around. After refusing to see him, Jobs finds Lisa in the crowd and eventually admits, "I'm poorly made." The computer man breaks himself down in his own language and becomes human.
Jobs' humanity is also revealed in a surprising scene with Sculley. He reveals his embarrassment over his adoption, explaining why, at least in part, why he doesn't allow people to get close to him. Fear of rejection persists and his obsession with control comes from having none as a child. In the beginning, Jobs is more machine than man, obsessed with his own agenda and little else. But as the film closes, the arguments become more civilized. Jobs listens to other points of view. And it's no accident he grows more successful as well.
Everything revolves around Fassbender, who looks nothing like Jobs, but manages to transform into him by the end. His performance is grandiose and the actor captures Jobs' stubborness and intellectualism in equal meaure. Of the supporting cast, Winslet stands out as Jobs' female counterpart and conscience. More than anyone, she knows the boss personally and you can feel that depth in the film's later scenes. As for Boyle, the director had to take his foot off the pedal for this one. The frequently kinetic filmmaker spins his tires a few times with Sorkin's dialogue, but the film moves beautifully. Plus, his decision to film each act differently (16mm, 35mm, and digital) adds another layer to a story marked specifically by time.
Steve Wozniak, played by Seth Rogen, the other Apple co-founder, is relegated to sidenote status in this film but he does have the most telling lines opposite Jobs. "Who are you?" He asks him half-mockingly. "What do you do?" It seems even "Rain Man" (Jobs' pet name for Woz) doesn't have a clue. And even though Wozniak is referring to himself in the scene, as the engineer to Jobs' carnival barker, the question is much bigger. Some movies might hang their hats on this question, but it's a surrogate moment. We're wondering the same thing. Of course, there's no answer, for any of us. And that may leave you empty inside. But credit Steve Jobs for giving it a shot.