Written by Aaron Sorkin
Directed by Danny Boyle
Director Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, 28 Days Later) divides this character study of contentious public figure Steve Jobs (Michael Fassbender) between three product launches, focusing on key pressure-cooker moments of his career that portray him at his most capable and least compassionate. The camera stares cynically as he betrays and keeps any potential closeness at a distance in order to uphold his greatness in the public eye. A parade of forsaken relationships creates a chasm between him and the rest of the world that the well-meaning people in his life continuously try to remedy. Although the indictment of his failings significantly softens by the third act, this is by no means a sympathetic account of the rise of the late guru behind Apple’s high-tech domination. Instead, it drives home the cruel single-mindedness that made Jobs an exceptional taskmaster. The film bathes in the trademarks of his bullheaded leadership that pushed employees to achieve out of fear, but what’s most engrossing about Boyle’s Steve Jobs is the denouncement of this highly regarded rebel’s indifference to the pain of others.
Fassbender’s Jobs is a ruthless master of ceremonies, unwilling to share his self-appointed spotlight as a visionary. Although not possessed of Jobs’ likeness, Fassbender is able to imbue his lines with an incredibly centered and charismatic cadence that absolutely is able to arrest moments of high tension with a vicious sense of his credibility as a narcissist totally in control of his destiny. Jobs’ bluntness is terrifying, as his unwillingness to see beyond self-obsession to the negative impact he has on the only people in his life that truly know and care what happens to him on an intimate level. He insists on the best from everyone but himself because everything he does is justified. Fassbender acutely lays down this pronounced egotism with eviscerating conviction. His slight frame somehow dominates the screen as he turns on anyone who dares to challenge his conceptual expertise. The polar opposites of Jobs are embodied by the soft-hearted Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen) and the brazen Andy Hertzfeld (the excellent Michael Stuhlbarg of A Serious Man). Both are loyal brainiacs who want Jobs to put in a minimal effort to be kind and responsible. Their alternative to the raging machismo, bravado and cut-throat attitude of Jobs is a welcome alternative depiction of masculinity as the film moves forward.
Writer Aaron Sorkin (otherwise not known for kindness towards female characters) finds a surprisingly significant place for the women who were integral to Jobs’ life. As Joanna Hoffman, Kate Winslet brings a fierce intensity to her condemnation of Steve’s personal behavior. As his right hand woman, she is more than just an appendage. She caters to his wishes but, more importantly, presses home important points about the products, his public image, and his messy private dealings with an informed emotional intelligence that he clearly lacks. She cuts him down to the quick as he denies credit and affection to those who have helped him reach the pinnacle of success. Winslet’s stern reminders are a flurry of imminent deadlines, secret meetings and what Jobs should do to rectify just a fraction of the carnage that he leaves in his wake as he crushes any perceptible threat to his authority. As the moral epicenter of the film, Winslet is a substantial force. She is given equal footing with Fassbender on screen and adds necessary gravitas to the audience’s perception of the far reaching implications of his actions. Jobs casts off ex-girlfriend Chrisann Brennan (a sympathetic Katherine Waterston) and rejects any notion that her daughter Lisa (alternatively played by Makenzie Moss, Ripley Sobo and Perla Haney-Jardine in the 3 segments) could be his. Lisa is a pure and naive counterpoint to Jobs’ misanthropic dealings. Her presence is an annoyance that that he can’t dismiss without obviously being in the wrong. So skillfully able to sidestep obligations and his abysmal treatment of others in all other facets of his life, Lisa’s curious innocence is able to melt Jobs’ Grinch heart ever so slightly and incrementally with time. These women bring an astute accountability to the film and save Steve Jobs from pandering to the cult of Apple and completely whitewashing his legacy.
Jobs, the 2013 rendering of the same subject matter that starts with the tech giant’s schooling and ends with introduction of the iPod, is too straightforward in approach and delivery. That movie’s Jobs (Ashton Kutcher) knowingly smirks and bluntly yells his way through the performance in a manner that leaves nothing to the imagination. There is a sickeningly cozy way the camera admires his fame and presents him as an island. Josh Gad as Wozniak is a shining light in otherwise dismal fare, giving a far more impassioned take than Rogen. Although Jobs is shown dismissing the contributions of the Apple I team, gone are the sophisticated women that were very much present at every stage of his ascension to power. Both films go to great lengths to glorify the global stir around his products, but only Sorkin finds time to equally distribute Jobs’ contempt and what was sacrificed in the quest to bring human affinity to the way we interact with machines.
There is a sleek minimalism to the set design that echoes Jobs’ products, but it’s the structure of the story that makes Steve Jobs stand out from other biographies. Adding novelty to the drama is the fact that the three parts were filmed differently, with the 1984 Macintosh unveiling in 16mm, the 1988 NeXT cube in 35mm, and the 1998 iMac presentation in digital. The first segment contains the most brutal incarnation of Jobs and as a result, is the most enthralling. The other two segments don’t match the electric, tightly edited excitement of the first launch, but still adequately convey his repellent and mesmerizing nature in equal measure. The end fizzles to a certain extent, unable to hold the tension created by Jobs’ callous pomposity and inability to empathize in the first third of the movie. Steve Jobs ultimately gives into somewhat of a sentimental reminiscence of Apple’s achievements, and focuses overly on Jobs’ hard edge wearing down with time, but Boyle’s project thankfully complicates the the diverse group of people who propped him up for superstardom. In doing so, it unearths and demands humanity from a story rife with the dangers of corporate greed. Undeniably, the film still bows a bit too magnanimously to Jobs, the innovator who, at least on the surface, transformed the public’s perception of technology’s capability to improve our everyday lives through his dynamic persona. Steve Jobs greatest undertaking is that it isn’t concerned with the audience relating to Jobs. It cinematically explicates the elaborate efforts and emotional journeys of all involved, resulting in a friction-filled dissection of the many lives caught up in Jobs’ whirlwind orchestration of some of the most significant technological changes of our time.
The 53rd New York Film Festival runs September 25 – October 11 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Visit the fest’s official website.