I learned long ago to stop caring about accuracy while watching biopics. They aren’t journalism. They’re carefully selected chunks of biographical material kneaded — sometimes forced — into the shape of an ostensibly satisfying movie. Thing is, human lives aren’t usually that conveniently movie-shaped. As a result, I’m satisfied if a biopic just feels authentic and I’m happy to say that Steve Jobs fulfills that standard. A lot of people will come out of the film saying it’s too kind to its titular subject. It’s not. It paints the Apple CEO as the cruel taskmaster, terrible friend and borderline sociopath so many of his compatriots make him out to be. The megalomaniacal narcissist Michael Fassbender constructs with such distressing effectiveness is absolutely the sort of person who could live with having kids in Chinese sweatshops build his smartphones. After all, he refused to acknowledge his own daughter for years, a fact the film doesn’t shy away from. But another thing most human beings tend to lack is easily defined good-or-evil one-dimensionality. Danny Boyle’s film has Jobs walking a tightrope between genius, monster and terrified yet somehow relatable human being.
To call it Boyle’s movie is to misstate things a little. If there’s an auteur behind this picture, it’s screenwriting enfant terrible Aaron Sorkin, famed mansplainer and writer of The Social Network, The Newsroom and The West Wing. Say what you will about him — and there’s a lot you could say — he knows his way around writing the Flawed But Brilliant White Man type, especially when it comes to representatives of its Silicon Valley subset. Sorkin realized that it’s impossible to squeeze an outsized personality and life that (for better or for worse) left an indelible mark on personal computing and, therefore, every aspect of human culture into a conventional biopic structure. So he decided, instead, to write a talky three-act play that basically involves Jobs stalking around backstage before three different product launches while co-workers and loved ones orbit around him with various professional and personal agendas. It’s like the beginning of The Godfather minus (most of) the murderous intent.
The screenplay, based on Walter Isaacson’s biography of Jobs, is as articulate and savage as ever for Sorkin, the dialogue exchanged by these wonderful actors like surgical nuclear strikes. The focus on three product launches — the first Macintosh in 1984, the disastrous NeXT computer in 1988 and the paradigm-shifting iMac in 1998 — feels almost impressionistic as we’re compelled to fill in what happened in intervening years based on brief flashbacks and the boiling resentment of the people Jobs interacts with. The opening 1984 sequence is possibly the best written and most deftly mounted, Boyle’s fleet filmmaking matching the distinctive rhythms of Sorkin’s walk-and-talk machine-gun scripting. Consumed with trying to get the Macintosh to say “hello” in time for the launch, Jobs denies being his daughter Lisa’s father (to her face!), humiliates her mother (Katherine Waterston), and refuses to give old friend and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen, never better) and his team public credit for the company-building Apple II computer. All that in
30 minutes while also setting up his soon-to-be-wrecked relationships with lead engineer Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg) and paternalistic Apple CEO John Sculley (Jeff Daniels). The only reasonably functional — almost, in fact, spousal — relationship he appears to have is with right-hand woman Joanna Hoffman, played with clear-eyed humanity by Kate Winslet, who is absolutely the heart and conscience of this film.
Fassbender and Sorkin highlight the rich irony of a man whose ultimate goal is to network the entire planet with devices that remain under his strict control who somehow still lives in a pathological state of detachment from those around him.
It’s a genuinely impressive instance of storytellers juggling a hundred china plates all at once without breaking a single one. Much of this is down to the tremendous cast, particularly Fassbender who eschews the make-up-enhanced impersonation tactics employed by actors playing real characters and chooses to drill down on Jobs’ defining characteristics. Fassbender, who looks nothing like Jobs, is almost indistinguishable from him in the final act, a combination of ruthlessness, ambition and tamped-down insecurities that aligns perfectly with popular perception of the man. Fassbender and Sorkin highlight the rich irony of a man whose ultimate goal is to network the entire planet with devices that remain under his strict control (“closed systems” as he calls them) who somehow still lives in a pathological state of detachment from those around him. But, then again, the answer is right there in the phrase “closed systems.” Control is Jobs’ biggest preoccupation and the film shines when he relinquishes it to recognisably human emotions. At one point, in what alcoholics call “a moment of clarity,” Jobs admits in response to a friend’s criticisms, “I’m poorly made.” Humanisation of this sort does not translate to hagiography. It simply sheds some additional light on the monster by giving screentime to the broken human being whose shoulders he’s been perching on.
In the end, Jobs does get a moment of redemption. While it’s more triumphal than The Social Network’s closing image of Mark Zuckerberg slumped in a chair, waiting for a woman to accept his friend request, it hardly downgrades the film to hero-worship status. An awful man becomes marginally less awful because he realises that, well, he’s not quite reprehensible enough to alienate his own child forever. Boyle’s biggest misstep here — and it’s characteristic of his work — is to play that moment up with much sound and fury. But the actual third-act turning point is a final showdown between Jobs and Wozniak in which one man crosses a line that he can never retreat back over. It’s a moment that defines this particular portrayal of Jobs, accurate or not, and sets him up quite definitively as a fundamentally flawed system: a high-functioning, even revolutionary operating system with an irreparably broken networking protocol.