REVIEW: “Steve Jobs” – Fassbender, Rogen stellar in Sorkin’s Jobs-inspired opus

Though it has the misfortune of following in the footsteps of two other feature films released in recent years centered around the brilliant and complicated life of the man whose name the film shares, Steve Jobs is without question the most innovative and impactful of the three. With its elegant structure and willingness to separate itself from historical accuracy in order to focus on distilling character essence, the film succeeds where its predecessors failed in terms of rendering a portrait of the man and his relationships with those closest to him that is intimate, compelling, and most of all substantive. It’s as though by getting away from trying to re-create places and events in a semi-accurate way, Steve Jobs gets audiences closer than they’ve ever been to the true essence of the man behind the pop culture superstar. What audiences experience may not be true in the sense of how it actually happened, but it feels true in terms of the personas and emotions involved.

Narratively built around three key events in Jobs’s career both within and outside of Apple — the product launches of the Macintosh in 1984, the NeXT cube computer in 1988, and the iMac in 1998 — the film focuses on Jobs (played by Michael Fassbender) as he interacts with and/or finds himself confronted by a specific group of people whose lives and career paths orbited his. Almost always by his side is Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), originally the marketing director for the Macintosh, who balances managing the events themselves with managing Jobs and his specific concerns and priorities as he prepares to take the stage. Then there’s Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg, Pawn Sacrifice), a member of Jobs’s original Mac team who unfortunately finds himself bearing the brunt of his boss’s ire as a function critical to Jobs’s idea for the Mac’s consumer appeal doesn’t want to work less than an hour before showtime. There’s also Jobs’s one-time closest friend and collaborator, Steve “Woz” Wozniak (Seth Rogen), with whom he co-founded Apple and whose design and vision for the Apple II led to years of financial success for the company, and John Scully (Jeff Daniels), the former Pepsi CEO who Jobs lured away from the “cola wars” in order to perform the same function for Apple and allow Jobs to focus on design and development. And finally, there’s Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston, Inherent Vice), Jobs’s former girlfriend who insists that her daughter Lisa (played at age 5 by Mackenzie Moss, age 9 by Ripley Sobo, and age 19 by Perla Haney-Jardine) is also Jobs’s daughter, a claim he vehemently denies both publicly and privately.

Each in their turn — Hoffman, Hertzfeld, Woz, Scully, Chrisann, and Lisa — get solo time with Jobs during the forty minutes immediately prior to each of the product launches. Each in their turn, they attempt to bargain and reason with Jobs and are subjected to his exacting demands, his long memory for slights and grudges, his patent denial of ever being wrong about anything, and other expressions of the narcissism that’s become as much a part of our collective cultural memory of the real Steve Jobs as is his visionary genius. Jobs never lets anyone forget that he really is the smartest man in any room, and just how on board each of the characters is with that particular concept in a given moment determines how he treats them in that moment. See things his way (which almost no one ever does), and he’s warm and appreciative. See things differently? Yeah, have fun with that conversation.

Steve Jobs one-sheet

What makes Steve Jobs a must-see film starts and ends with screenwriter Aaron Sorkin. Once again, the writer responsible for such cerebral, dialogue-driven dramas as The Social Network, Moneyball, and many, many years ago A Few Good Men delivers a film that deliberately has the dynamic sound and rhythm of a stage play. The rigid three act structure, the symmetry of each act’s real-time progression (each is approximately 40 minutes, to match the conceit in the film that the events take place 40 minutes before the start of the launches), the ways in which scenes move forward as characters around Jobs enter and exit, all contribute to the experience feeling smaller, more intimate and immediate, than a more conventional film might.

Complementing Sorkin’s efforts here is the vision of Slumdog Millionaire director Danny Boyle. In addition to his effective staging and use of the locations chosen for the backdrops of each act, Boyle chooses to film each of the three acts in different film stock, altering the physical, visual look of the film as it transitions from act to act to reflect the movement forward in time and the evolution of technology. It’s these artistic flourishes — Sorkin’s sense of symmetry and Boyle’s visual aesthetic — that make Steve Jobs the film very much like a product Jobs the man might have designed: in form and function both artistic and effective.

But what about the acting? It’s no overstatement to suggest that Steve Jobs might succeed come Oscar season in landing one or even two nominations in each of the primary acting categories. Much will be made of Michael Fassbender’s effort at portraying Jobs, and every ounce of praise will be well-deserved, as his is a commanding performance. But Fassbender is an actor from whom commanding¬†performances have come to be expected, particularly in character-driven dramatic roles, and thus his fine efforts here may not impress audiences as much as they should simply because they already know he’s that good.

In comparison, the performer who may really blow people away with his work here is Seth Rogen. The stoner persona Rogen so often inhabits in the films that made him a star is completely camouflaged behind a bushier beard, large eyeglasses and slumped shoulders as the actor plays the awkward but earnest foil to Fassbender’s charismatic but often inscrutable and duplicitous Jobs. Jeff Daniels also turns in tremendous work here as he brings to life John Scully, and Kate Winslet is every bit as good as you might expect her to be given the quality of this material. Everyone is good here, and Fassbender’s work with them makes them exceptional. But it’s Rogen’s Woz that audiences will most likely find themselves cheering for every time he verbally spars on Jobs, and that’s a credit to just how strong Rogen’s work here truly is.

All that said, it’s important to note that speaking in terms of plot and plot development, there isn’t much of one in Steve Jobs aside from witnessing how Jobs as a person evolves to face personal challenges he wasn’t expecting to face in the course of fomenting the technological revolution that he truly believed only he was capable of leading. Essentially, it’s a character sketch; perhaps one of the most elaborately conceived and entertainingly executed character sketches in modern film, but nonetheless, still a character sketch. That aspect of the film alone may prove a turn-off to those going in hoping for a more conventional narrative, but the fact that it’s not constructed to be a crowd-pleaser shouldn’t be considered a flaw. After all, the last cinematic effort at bringing Steve Jobs to life on the big-screen, 2013’s Jobs, starring Ashton Kutcher, was conceived and executed as a conventional biopic, and people didn’t like that movie, either.

So who cares if it’s “another” movie about Steve Jobs? Go see it, anyway. He was a remarkable individual, one whose character and essence is likely to inspire interpretation in yet more films and other media as time goes on and his creative legacy continues to touch our daily lives. But now, perhaps for the first time, in this film, you have an attempt to capture who and what Steve Jobs was to those around him that’s as innovative in its efforts as Jobs himself was at the work for which we remember him. For that reason alone, Steve Jobs the film deserves your attention, especially if you own or regularly use an iAnything.

Steve Jobs
Starring Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Seth Rogen, Jeff Daniels, Michael Stuhlbarg, Katherine Waterston. Directed by Danny Boyle.
Running Time: 122 minutes
Rated R for language.

Felix Albuerne
Felix Albuerne
One-time Blockbuster Video manager, textbook editor, trivia host, and community college English/Humanities teacher. Now a digital media producer, part-time film critic, amateur foodie, semi-retired beer snob, unabashed geek, and still very much a work in progress.