“Steve Jobs” isn’t so much interested in the historical accuracy of Steve Jobs’ life. Directed by Danny Boyle, the biopic instead focuses on the whirlwind of emotions he faced during three different launches of which he was a part — the first Macintosh in 1984, NeXT in 1988 and the iMAc in 1998 — in order to see who the man and the myth really were.
At each launch, Jobs (Michael Fassbender) is seen demoralizing, arguing with and disowning everyone from his software developer Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg), his friend and Apple co-founder Steve “Woz” Wozniak (Seth Rogen), his head of marketing Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), his ex-girlfriend (Katherine Waterston) and their daughter Lisa (Perla Haney-Jardine, Ripley Sobo and Mackenzie Moss) whom he has publicly disowned.
The film strictly follows this three-act structure — one for each launch — and only occasionally breaks it to show brief flashbacks to explain the current events. Yet, there is just no way that this much drama happened right before the launch of each product. Audiences will have to accept that the film isn’t trying to achieve a realistic representation of Jobs, but more of an exploration of the madness and ambition found within a man who truly believes that the products he is selling will change technology and mankind forever.
Each actor lives up to these brilliant people who helped create what Apple is today. Particularly and unsurprisingly, Fassbender dominates every scene he is in. Fassbender as Jobs, as written by Oscar-winner Aaron Sorkin, is a monster. He’s a vicious, unforgiving person who compares himself to Julius Caesar and admits that he’s surrounded by people who hate him. He’s not interested in how other people think of him as long as the product sells.
Fassbender makes us despise this character, at least early on. But as the film develops and we see Jobs get fired from Apple and begin to establish a relationship with his gifted yet neglected daughter Lisa, we see cracks in his egotistical facade.
Stuhlbarg, an underrated theater actor, stands out as having the most emotionally demanding role in the film. While Fassbender is all sound and fury and spews diatribes to his co-workers regarding their inabilities, Stuhlbarg has to portray the quietly suffering software developer Hertzfeld, who in his first scene alone is threatened to be fired for a technical glitch he has no control over.
In a telling scene later on the film, Hertzfeld finally confronts Jobs regarding his poor parenting of Lisa. Jobs, like always, verbally assaults Hertzfeld. Stuhlbarg allows tears to swell in his eyes, finally releasing the emotions he has been hiding from the monstrous Jobs. Jobs refuses to accept his wrongdoing in front of Hertzfeld. But after the character leaves, through Fassbender’s performance, we finally see that Jobs is shaken to the core and is coming to terms with his treatment of the people who are closest to him.
With its three-act structure, the film has a theatrical feel. The film is stuck within one building for each act and has all of the drama behind closed doors seen in last year’s Oscar winner for Best Picture, “Birdman.”
The film uses the tech jargon of Silicon Valley, but it also expresses the complex emotions involving Jobs and his estranged daughter Lisa. For anyone who has seen films written by Sorkin, you know that Sorkin never holds the hand of the audience when it comes to technical words or cathartic moments. Just look at his equally demanding script for “The Social Network,” another film about a tech genius.
A bold choice has been made to distinguish the three acts by shooting in three different formats. The cinematographer Alwin Kuchler uses a grainy 16mm film for the 1984 section, 35mm film for a colorful, cinematic look for 1988 act and digital video for a crisp, muted appearance in the 1998 portion. Coupled with clean and efficient editing, the film is a technical marvel.
The film does have one flaw. The film strives to be the modern-day version of “Citizen Kane.” The film has many complicated characters and incredible technical work alongside virtuoso directing and dense writing, all involving a complexity of emotions not seen in most films.
Yet, in “Citizen Kane,” at the end of the film when Charles Foster Kane whispers, “Rosebud,” the audience gets a sense of what haunted both the man and the myth. At the end of “Steve Jobs,” while trying to create an ambiguous ending, the audience is left with a sense of emptiness. The audience sees who Jobs was as a leader, and it gets fleeting glimpses of what made him tick, but the man and the myth remain unanswered. Much like the character of Jobs, the film is an ambitious, yet flawed piece of intellectually demanding but emotionally undeveloped cinema.
Contact Levi Hill at [email protected].