Biopics are a dime a dozen these days, mostly owing to the fact that the formula has been perfected. Ever since Ray, the beats of any biographical movie have been predictable and boring, even when the movie itself is otherwise pretty good. The modern draw of biopics has been the performances—how deeply immersed in a character can an actor get? Will they disappear completely in the role, like Jaime Foxx in Ray, or will they just do an imitation like Joaquin Phoenix in Walk the Line? Creativity has left the building, and in its place we’ve been given scripts that seem to operate using the find all and replace function of the screenwriter’s computer.
In the same way that Steve Jobs forever changed the paradigm of personal computing with his innovative and original products, Steve Jobs changes the paradigm of biopics. It’s less a movie, in the traditional sense, and more a portrait composed of moving pictures, and presents a stunning and creative new approach to biographical filmmaking. It doesn’t just disregard the traditional approaches, it stomps all over them.
This is the point in my reviews where I typically give a brief synopsis of the plot. That’s difficult to do in the case of Steve Jobs, as plot has been thrown right out of the window. Steve Jobs has no time for your petty expectations of storytelling conventions. I suppose that it’s best described as a series of three vignettes, each taking place backstage just before Steve Jobs (Michael Fassbender) is to give a keynote address at a new product launch: The first in 1984, before the unveiling of the Macintosh, the second in 1988 before the unveiling of the NeXT cube, and finally in 1998 before the unveiling of the iMac. In each scene, Jobs has conversations with the same five people—his assistant, Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), his partner (and arguable brains behind his power) Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), Apple engineer Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg), Apple CEO John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), and his daughter Lisa (Makenzie Moss, Ripley Sobo, and Perla Haney-Jardine).
Through these conversations we get an intimate look at Jobs at the height of his power and genius, all while getting information about his early life in subtle ways. At most points, Steve Jobs feels more like a play than a movie, with its reliance on dialog and subtlety to convey its themes. This is a testament to screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, whose every word positively oozes with complexity and meaning. Sorkin has long been one of the best screenwriters Hollywood has at their disposal, and he achieves stunning new heights here. I suspect we’ll be hearing his name more and more in the run up to Academy Awards season as Sorkin seems an absolute shoe-in for a best screenplay nod.
The same goes for director Danny Boyle. Boyle is the kind of director whose every movie is somehow better than his last, resulting mostly in a stream of films that can consistently be called his masterpiece. Well, he’s done it again. This time, I’m not quite sure how he plans to surpass the achievement he’s accomplished with Steve Jobs. As with Sorkin’s writing, Boyle’s direction is littered with complex subtleties that add new layers of meaning to the overall narrative. The film is shot using three different formats—16mm, 35mm, and digital, each representative of the evolution of Jobs, his products, and technology in general. This also serves to give each segment its own feel, making every scene seem completely stand alone, a mirror, of course, to Jobs’ stubborn insistence that each of his products be a closed system.
As to the cast, nobody in this film plays a character so much as they become them. Fassbender has, for the last several years, been one of the finest actors working today and he disappears so completely into his role that you have to remind yourself you aren’t actually watching Steve Jobs actually be an asshole to everyone around him. Winslet is near unrecognizable as Hoffman, not due to any makeup or tricks of the camera, but due to the sheer strength of her performance. Even Rogen, who by all rights should stand out like an Android at an Apple convention, digs deep to deliver a performance that will have even his detractors nodding in approval. There isn’t a single performance in Steve Jobs that isn’t worth both acclaim and awards.
Steve Jobs was a complicated man, and Steve Jobs paints his portrait, warts and all. Unlike the more traditional biopic Jobs from 2013, which inexplicably starred Ashton Kutcher in the titular role, this film isn’t an exercise in mere ass kissing and hero worship. While the movie is always reverent to Jobs and his legacy, it doesn’t shy away from the personal and interpersonal problems that, some might argue, overshadowed his genius. This results in a film that’s powerful on every imaginable level. We alternately hate Steve Jobs and are awed by him. We feel vindicated by his ouster from Apple and can’t wait for his comeback. We want to punch him in the face and shake his hand.
By all accounts, this isn’t too different from the feelings of meeting the actual Steve Jobs. He was a man who not only expected the best from everyone around him, but positively demanded it. By that metric, he would be pleased by Steve Jobs, simply because it truly is the best that movie making has to offer.