For those who subscribe to the generally held view that the late co-founder of Apple was both an iconic visionary and a monster with a silicon chip where his heart should be, rest assured that writer Aaron Sorkin, director Danny Boyle and star Michael Fassbender have given their subject the brilliant, maddening, ingeniously designed and monstrously self-aggrandizing movie he deserves. Blowing away traditional storytelling conventions with the same withering contempt that seems to motivate its characters’ every interaction, “Steve Jobs” is a bravura backstage farce, a wildly creative fantasia in three acts in which every scene plays out as a real-time volley of insults and ideas — insisting, with sometimes gratingly repetitive sound and fury, that Jobs’ gift for innovation was perhaps inextricable from his capacity for cruelty. Straining like mad to be the “Citizen Kane” (or at least the “Birdman”) of larger-than-life techno-prophet biopics, this is a film of brash, swaggering artifice and monumental ego, a terrific actors’ showcase and an incorrigibly entertaining ride that looks set to be one of the fall’s early must-see attractions.
Despite the cinematic cottage industry that has recently sprung up around Jobs’ legacy (including Alex Gibney’s fine documentary “Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine”), Universal should have little trouble establishing its Oct. 9 release as the only Steve Jobs movie the broader public will really need or want to see; to even compare it to “Jobs,” the Ashton Kutcher-starring indie mediocrity that came and went in 2013, would be as unfair as likening the Star Child to one of those apes wandering around at the beginning of “2001.” Indeed, it’s a measure of the film’s chutzpah that “Steve Jobs” at times seems to be channeling Kubrick’s science-fiction touchstone (which is duly mentioned here) by developing its own sophisticated, multi-part structure — one where every new chapter marks a major evolutionary leap forward, and where Jobs himself is the cold, towering obelisk dictating humanity’s steady onward march toward technological supremacy.
Inspired, in the loosest possible sense of the word, by Walter Isaacson’s massive and authoritative Jobs biography, Sorkin’s screenplay has mastered the art of conveying a character’s essence — not by delivering the most comprehensive account possible (Pixar, Xerox and cancer are just a few topics that go unmentioned), but by compressing the most relevant data into one significant time frame. Or rather, three significant time frames, each one centered around the public launch of a Jobs-created product that would change the course of his career and thus the course of global technology. It’s a most appropriate conceit for a man who, by most unflattering accounts, lavished more love and care on his signature creations than on any of the people in his inner circle. At the same time, the picture’s surreal backstage-farce approach ensures that those people are very much in Jobs’ face mere minutes before showtime, always choosing the worst possible moment to take him to task.
Act one is set in 1984 at De Anza Community College in Cupertino, Calif., where Jobs (Fassbender, not quite looking 29) is about to unveil the first-ever Macintosh, for which a recent Super Bowl ad has stoked massive anticipation. Everyone is in crisis mode: System-software developer Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg) is desperately trying to get the computer to say “hello” to the audience, something Jobs insists on with typical stubbornness. He’s already fuming because he’s lost the Time magazine cover he was promised, possibly due to the recently aired scandal involving his ex-girlfriend Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston, “Inherent Vice”) and her 5-year-old daughter, Lisa (Makenzie Moss), whose paternity he has publicly denied. Making matters worse, Chrisann herself shows up with Lisa in tow and demands money, asking him how it feels to be worth $441 million while the mother of his child is on welfare.
If Jobs is the master of this three-ring circus, then his long-suffering mediator is Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), his most trusted friend and consort, who tries to manage his moods and demands over the course of the film while urging him to treat those around him fairly. Certainly few deserve such consideration more than Steve “Woz” Wozniak (Seth Rogen, exceptional), the friendly, long-suffering Apple co-founder and programming genius who knows he deserves more credit for their success than his partner has given him over the years (the film includes a few judicious flashbacks to the two men building their future empire in Jobs’ garage). But such consideration is not forthcoming from Jobs, who rebuffs Woz’s request that he publicly acknowledge the team behind the Apple II computer — still the company’s biggest moneymaker, and one for which Jobs doesn’t bother to hide his dislike.
In this first act alone, Sorkin’s script establishes core aspects of Jobs’ personal and professional identities that will be further advanced and imaginatively embellished in the next two segments. We witness firsthand his impossible perfectionism and refusal to take no for an answer; his withering criticism of his colleagues and employees, all in the name of eliciting their very best work; his ridiculously high opinion of himself, complete with self-flattering comparisons to Stravinsky and Caesar; his insistence that his computers reflect his exquisite design sense and remain incompatible with non-Apple products; his ongoing hang-ups about his adoption as a child, and what it says about his inability to control his destiny; and above all, his startling callousness toward his own child, who begins to interest him only when she shows flashes of her father’s brainpower.
Things have shifted considerably when act two picks up in 1988: The Macintosh has tanked, Jobs has been fired from Apple, and he’s now preparing to stage a comeback via his new company, NeXT, which is about to release a computer model notable for its “black cube” design and impractical $6,500 retail price. The setting is the San Francisco Opera House, and Daniel Pemberton’s music adroitly shifts from percussive beats to classical orchestrations — all the better to underscore Jobs’ sense of himself as not a lowly musician, but a master conductor. Even now, kicked out of his empire, he seems to be firmly in control of each situation as he goes another few rounds with Woz, discusses the uncertain future of both NeXT and Apple with Joanna, and grudgingly spends time with the now 9-year-old Lisa (Ripley Sobo), who’s clearly warmed to the dad who once disowned her.
But Jobs’ chief sparring partner this time around is John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), the Apple CEO who fired him three years earlier under mysterious circumstances that are revisited here in a boardroom flashback. As editor Elliot Graham cuts swiftly between past and present, overlapping Sorkin’s already rapid-fire dialogue, the formal showmanship dazzles even if the corporate backbiting isn’t especially easy to follow. But with Sculley on his way out at Apple, which has foundered in Jobs’ absence, the latter seems all the more triumphant in his conviction that personal vision will always prevail over groupthink: “Artists lead,” he snarls, “and hacks ask for a show of hands.”
By act three, set in 1998 at San Francisco’s Davies Symphony Hall, the now 43-year-old Jobs has been restored to his full glory at Apple, where he’s about to launch the iMac to unprecedented anticipation; the Internet is about to explode and the iPod is just three years away. Even now, sporting the graying hair, glasses and black turtleneck that will constitute his signature look in years to come, he’s as obstinate and nasty as ever, finding yet another reason to quarrel with the now 19-year-old Lisa (Perla Haney-Jardine), to the ongoing chagrin of both Joanna and Hertzfeld. And he has one more harsh confrontation with Woz, in which Jobs once again digs in his heels and refuses to admit any wrongdoing, prompting his old frenemy to declare his own philosophy of life: “You can be decent and gifted at the same time.” It’s here, however, that after roughly two hours of nonstop bitchery and antagonism, Sorkin and Fassbender allow the faintest flicker of compassion to emerge; we’re left pondering that this ruthless conqueror may have been capable of love after all, albeit a love that he was willing to define only on his deeply distorted terms.
Indeed, all but Jobs’ most violent detractors may take issue with a picture that can be read on one level as a form of high-end character assassination, and on another as a live-action cartoon. Sorkin’s warts-and-all approach is so thorough that it seems to discover warts on top of warts; you’d have to go back to “There Will Be Blood” to find another Hollywood antihero so willing to isolate himself from others, and to pursue his dreams with such vicious single-mindedness. This isn’t, of course, the first time Sorkin has turned an unflattering eye on a tech-world revolutionary, and those viewers who thought “The Social Network” was a bit too show-offy will find this even more brazenly written picture truly insufferable by comparison. The virtues of Sorkin’s style are as self-evident as the vices; his work here is by turns ferociously inventive and cloddishly on-the-nose — a high-wire achievement that’s easy to admire even when it’s nearly impossible to like.
And something similar could surely be said of Steve Jobs himself, whose profound disinterest in soliciting anyone’s affection is what ultimately lends Boyle and Sorkin’s film its underlying integrity, despite the outrageous factual, dramatic and aesthetic liberties they’ve taken with the material. In this unabashedly fictionalized context, Fassbender overcomes the obvious casting hurdle (he looks nothing like Jobs, whose Arab-American lineage is briefly referenced) and delivers a performance as enthralling and fully sustained as any on his estimable resume. That the actor is onscreen at every minute makes it all the better that it’s impossible to take your eyes off him, or your ears: This is an actor who knows exactly how to toss off Sorkin’s dialogue, emphasizing rhythm and inflection over volume, while embodying confidence and authority in his every atom. It’s a performance that sets the tone for equally fine work all around: Rogen delivers a lovable, downright huggable spin on Wozniak; Stuhlbarg mines layers of wry wisdom from Hertzfeld; and as Jobs’ right-hand woman, Winslet overcomes a wobbly Polish accent to provide the audience with an essential lifeline to reason and sanity.
Working with d.p. Alwin Kutchler, Boyle sometimes sends the camera hurtling after the characters in lengthy, down-the-corridor tracking shots; elsewhere, the brief transitional snippets between acts feature some fairly aggressive stylization, in line with his usual m.o. But for the most part, this is the filmmaker’s most reined-in picture in some time, as if a too-kinetic approach would interfere with the verbal energy of Sorkin’s script. Besides Guy Hendrix Dyas’ unobtrusively excellent production design, the picture’s major visual coup is the decision to shoot the three acts on three different formats: grainy 16mm film for 1984, lustrous 35mm for 1988, and sleek, high-definition digital for 1998. The distinctions may well be lost on the vast majority of viewers, but it’s just the sort of nicely understated aesthetic flourish that Steve Jobs himself would have surely appreciated.