Danny Boyle has had a long career in directing films that cover different genres, such as the grim world of drug addiction in Trainspotting or the rags-to-riches tale in Slumdog Millionaire. Now, he examines intertwined themes of technology and human connection in his latest film Steve Jobs.
Based on the Walter Isaacson biography, Steve Jobs focuses on the achievements of the late founder of Apple Computer. Rather than following Jobs’ life from birth to death, the film instead covers three eras of the man’s life. Each one is set just before a product launch in 1984, 1988 and 1998, respectively. Steve Jobs (played by Michael Fassbender) prepares to unveil the latest products to an audience while dealing with various problems. He must juggle his schedule with friend and coworker Joanna Hoffman (played by Kate Winslet), resolve his complicated friendship with Apple co-founder Steve “Woz” Wozniak over the Apple II computer (Seth Rogen), and handle the impending deadlines. More troubling, Jobs has to connect with his daughter Lisa and handle her mother, ex-girlfriend Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston), who is frequently demanding money from him. His struggle to accept his role as Lisa’s father stems from being adopted as a child, which contributes to his obsession for control and perfection. He also has to deal with Apple CEO John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), who Throughout the film, the viewer is treated to flashbacks of Jobs founding Apple in his parents’ garage, the hiring of Sculley as CEO and how he turned against the younger man.
Fassbender’s performance can be best described as compelling. Although he doesn’t resemble the real man, the German-Irish actor closely embodies him as the film progresses, donning Jobs’ familiar black sweater and round spectacles. He goes from an insecure 29-year old wunderkind to a mature but frustrated thirty-three year old and finally to a mellowed 43-year old man reflecting on his youth. At times, he can be flippant, laid-back, driven and sarcastic in his unconventional approach to life’s challenges, such as washing his feet in a toilet bowl. His demand for complete control extends to minor details, such as the color of his shirts and total darkness during an Apple launch. However, he shows a gentle, troubled side of himself when reflecting on his personal life, stating, “I’m poorly made.” Although we never get a full explanation of how Jobs thinks, this moment shows a sense of self-awareness.
The supporting cast delivers solid performances. Nearly unrecognizable, Winslet dons a wig, 1980s-style glasses and a Polish accent to play Hoffman, who serves as the conscience and moral guidance of Jobs. Her platonic relationship with him is at times humorous and frustrating, especially in regards to his treatment of employees. Seth Rogen’s Wozniak proves to be one of the film’s biggest surprises. In contrast to his goofy, immature comedic characters, his depiction of Woz comes off as likeable, frustrated and equally disillusioned by Jobs’ treatment of him, especially since he really invented the first computers for Apple. “I’m tired of being treated like Ringo when I know I was John,” he admits to Jobs. Waterston is both sympathetic and bitter as Chrisann, but the film only hints at her using Lisa as a bargaining chip to get money out of her ex. Lisa herself is played brilliantly from a sweet kindergarten student (Makenzie Moss) to a precocious nine-year old (Ripley Sobo) and a troubled college freshman (Perla Haney-Jardine). Finally, Jeff Daniels brings an older, cynical edge to Sculley, who serves as a sort of surrogate father to Jobs. His confrontations with Jobs are among the film’s highlights.
Written by Aaron Sorkin, the film adapts a solid portion of Isaacson’s biography, but it uses a three-act structure to drive the story. Instead of beginning in Jobs’ youth, the plot consists of three vignettes of 40 minutes that explores the characters’ personal and professional conflicts. While it feels like Greek theatre or Shakespearean drama, the formula wears thin, coming off as repetitive and predictable. Similar to his writing on The Social Network, Sorkin uses artistic license to great length; for example, Jobs did not have said confrontations before the product launches. Nor did Wozniak have heated arguments with Jobs over having his efforts acknowledged; although they later reconciled, both men admitted they did not talk for several years during this period of time.
Despite the fictionalized plot and artistic license, Steve Jobs delivers a gripping story and stellar performances. Fassbender proves himself to be a gifted thespian, and we can expect to see more of his talent for years to come.