Through its fictional narrative structure, “Steve Jobs” attempts to give us a complex portrayal of one fascinating real-life figure whose grand, ambitious visions have influenced our modern world – or our modern electronic industry and market at least. Although its dramatic presentation is not exactly revealing especially if you are very familiar with the subject, the movie works a very engaging character drama fueled by its smart screenplay and excellent performances, and it is entertaining to see how it smoothly moves through its three individual main stages with style and mood as constructing a multi-dimensional portrait both human and abstract.
Based on the biography of the same name by Walter Isaacson, the adapted screenplay by Aaron Sorkin focuses on three highlight moments of late Steve Jobs’s life. In 1984, Jobs, played by Michael Fassbender, is about to do the product launch of the Apple Macintosh personal computer, and we are introduced to a number of people who revolve around him throughout the film. In 1988, we see Jobs preparing for another important product launch, but he is no longer in Apple after fired from his own company 3 years ago, and he knows well the risks he is going to take through his bold action. In 1998, Jobs is back in Apple with absolute control, and he is fully ready to present its new personal computer iMac G3, which will take his company to the next level.
In each of these three sections, the movie focuses closely on how Jobs handles several small and big matters thrust upon him during his painstaking preparation process before his glorious show time on the stage, and the movie becomes a sort of backstage drama while the cinematographer Alwin H. Küchler’s camera fluidly moves along with Jobs and others around the three stage backgrounds shown in the film. As he acknowledges at one point, Jobs sees himself as the conductor of a symphony performance to be held, and he surely demands his ‘players’ that they should make everything in his presentation played exactly and beautifully as he wanted from the very beginning.
It is widely known that Jobs was quite abrasive and demanding to his employees who both disliked and admired him, and the movie does not hide that aspect at all as depicting his bumpy interactions with his marketing executive Joanna Hoffmann (Kate Winslet) and his head technician Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg). As his right arm person who knows and understands Jobs better than many others, Hoffmann firmly keeps her position besides her boss while functioning as his calm, no-nonsense voice of reason, and we are not surprised to learn later that she is one of a few people who can stand up to Jobs if that is necessary. Hertzfeld is diligent and resourceful even when he is suddenly tasked with a job to be accomplished within around 30 minutes, and you may see how Jobs brought the best out of his people – by any means necessary.
As Job’s sharp mind is busy with his work, anything besides that looks like trivial annoyances to be dismissed and discarded for him, and we witness more of Job’s worse sides mainly through three people who feel hurt and betrayed by him. His ex-girlfriend Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston) always finds herself being frustrated and exasperated whenever Jobs callously treats her with his aloof attitude mixed with stubborn pettiness, and we hear about how lousy Jobs is as the father of their young daughter. Job’s friend Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), who co-founded Apple with him and made the Apple I and II computers, tries to maintain their long friendship, but Jobs is not so good at treating well his friend who was crucial in the early success of their company. In case of John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), the CEO of Apple who was recruited by Jobs himself, he tries to support Jobs like a patient father, but he also gets his own headaches even after Jobs is fired from Apple.
Sorkin previously wrote the Oscar-winning screenplay for David Fincher’s “The Social Network” (2010), and he is indeed an ideal writer for the movie. Like Mark Zuckerberg in “The Social Network”, Steve Jobs is shrewd and intelligent enough to see the future of our digital age, and he does not understand human relationships well while only caring about what interests his mind (“I don’t want people to dislike me. I’m indifferent to whether they dislike me.”). Observe how he becomes softer when he shows his young daughter how to use the Macintosh, even though he argued with his ex-girlfriend just before that. Or watch how he looks a little friendlier when he shows his interest to Wozniak’s new electronic gadget, even though they are not so pleased about each other at that point.
Like “The Social Network” and “Moneyball” (2011), Sorkin’s screenplay for “Steve Jobs” is packed with long well-written dialogue scenes, and we go along with its swift narrative flow as these dialogues scenes are delivered quick and fast by the wonderful performers in the film. Although he does not resemble Jobs much compared to Ashton Kutcher in “Jobs” (2013), Michael Fassbender, who is no stranger to playing cold, intense characters with dark shades, is electrifying as a callous but charismatic man relentlessly driven by his single-minded ambition, and we have no problem in accepting him as Jobs from the start. While Kate Winslet, who is deservedly Oscar-nominated along with Fassbender, is fabulous as his equal acting match, Seth Rogen shows again how effortlessly he can dial down his comic persona whenever it is necessary, and Jeff Daniels and Michael Stuhlbarg are reliable as usual while having each own moment in front of Fassbender. As Job’s daughter, Makenzie Moss, Ripley Sobo, and Perla Haney-Jardine are flawlessly connected together in their performance, and their scenes with Fassbender are poignant as Jobs clumsily shows his better side through his strained relationship with his daughter, who has somehow grown up well despite her problematic childhood years and becomes a bit closer to her distant father in the end.
Shooting his movie at the real locations where Jobs actually did his product launches as depicted in the film, the director Danny Boyle, who has never made a boring film during his bouncy filmmaking career, imbues three parts of his film with distinctive aural/visual ambiences. The 1984 part was shot with 16mm film at the Flint Center of De Anza community college in Cupertino, California, and the rough tone of this part is accompanied with Daniel Pemberton’s propulsive synthesizer music evoking that recognizable 1980s music style. The 1988 part was shot with 35mm film at the War Memorial Opera house in San Francisco, California, and its brighter atmosphere is accentuated by not only the big interior environment of the opera house but also the operatic mood of the soundtrack. The 1998 part was shot with digital film at the Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco, California, and its smooth texture fits well to that clean simplicity of iMac and the subsequent Apple products, while Pemberton’s score switches back to the electronic mode with modern minimalistic style.
While apparently fictionalized a lot during its adaptation process, “Steve Jobs” is a compelling glimpse into Job’s life and career. Rather than monotonously droning on facts, the movie is really curious about what makes him tick, and Boyle, Sorkin, and Fassbender and the other main cast members did a superlative job here in this film. Jobs might be a prick, but, as reflected by the ending, he was a pretty smart and exciting one we could not help but watch, and the movie vividly reminds us of that feeling as we ask ourselves on one thing. He did change our world, but is it better or worse for us? We will soon see, probably.