Arts movie review

A visionary icon, closed end-to-end

Michael Fassbender stars in a formally innovative portrait of Steve Jobs

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Steve Jobs (Michael Fassbender) and Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen) in Steve Jobs.
François Duhamel


Steve Jobs

Directed by Danny Boyle

Starring Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Jeff Daniels, Seth Rogan

Rated R

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It is undeniable that Steve Jobs, through the technical innovations he spearheaded as the head of Apple Inc., profoundly impacted the way we relate to our machines and, through them, to each other.

Since his death in 2011, he has become an object of cultural fixation, coalescing debates on the ethics of genius and the morality of creativity in business. Accounts of his personal life and his contradictory nature in relationships continue to fascinate: how could a man so pivotal in forging the emotional attachment between humans and their digital devices have had so much trouble navigating emotional attachments of his own?

Eschewing the traditional narrative structure of conventional biopics, Steve Jobs, the film, offers an evocative portrait of its namesake. The film is not the first attempt to explore the complex character of Steve Jobs on screen, following on Alex Gibney level-handed 2015 documentary Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine and 2013’s poorly received Jobs starring Ashton Kutcher. It is, however, the most formally audacious.

Elliptically covering 30 years of Jobs’ personal history, as well as the evolution of personal computing, the formal structure of the film is driven by repetition and parallelism. The movie is divided into three acts, each transpiring backstage in the minutes before a key product launch: the 1984 Macintosh unveiling; the debut of the educational computer company NeXT in 1988; and the premiere of the iMac in 1998, after Jobs’ triumphant return to Apple.

Each segments roughly follow the same format, revealing the conversations between Jobs and the same group of characters across each time period — Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), his devoted head of marketing; Jobs’ eldest daughter, Lisa (played at various ages by Perla Haney-Jardine, Ripley Sobo, and Makenzie Moss); Apple co-founder Steven Wozniak (Seth Rogan); and Apple CEO John Sculley (Jeff Daniels).

Given that the majority of the film takes place inside closed rooms, with wordy exchanges between a small cast of characters constituting the story in place of action or plotting, the movie can feel quite stagey. This is probably a testament to the theatrical sensibilities of screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (A Few Good Men, The Social Network, and TV’s The West Wing and The Newsroom), here working broadly from Walter Isaacson’s authorized Jobs biography. Frenetic and dialogue-heavy, the script is, classically and quintessentially, Sorkinesque, with lots of walking and talking and fast-paced verbal sparring. Real people don’t talk like this — this cleverly or this quickly — but the film sure makes you wish they did.

Sorkin’s script is well partnered with Danny Boyle’s strong direction. The movie may initially seem like something of a stylistic departure for Boyle, whose films tend to be visceral and kinetic (Trainspotting, Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours), but the action has been replaced by rapid dialogue, the quick cutting substituted by the fast rhythms of language, and some familiar visual flourishes still emerge.

In the various press surrounding the film, Boyle has repeatedly made clear that his film is not meant to be a representational biopic, but rather a subjective portrait. To this extent, it doesn’t matter that Fassbender doesn’t physically resemble Jobs, or that Winslet’s character is more a composite of several women in Jobs’ life. The actors portray their roles terrifically, with grace and restraint. As the scenes build on one another, the characters become metaphoric, familial archetypes: Winslet’s character refers to herself as Jobs’ “work-wife,” Daniels’ character is explicitly referenced as Jobs’ “father figure,” and clear fraternal lines are drawn between Jobs and Wozniak, who represent opposing ideological perspectives on the democratization of computing (closed end-to-end control in the design process versus an anarchical, user-driven customization, respectively).

Midway through the film, a young Lisa mentions to her father that she’s listening to different versions of the same song on her Walkman. And that perhaps best describes the structure of the film itself, and also perhaps our collective fixation on telling, and retelling, the Steve Jobs story — a repetition of our frustrated connection with this public figure whose vision has shaped much of the way we interact with technology, each other, and ourselves. Intimate yet unknowable. Close yet separated. Like trying to connect with someone through a computer screen.