When news broke that master filmmaker David Fincher was no longer directing the Steve Jobs movie written by Aaron Sorkin, I deflated. A re-teaming of the mighty minds behind “The Social Network,” long-awaited by yours truly, had gone up in studio-political flames. My worrying was for naught, because Danny Boyle reigns himself in and allows Sorkin’s structurally daring screenplay to breathe when it must. The fear was Boyle’s playful, visually ADD style, so evident and appropriately utilized in films like “Slumdog Millionaire” and “127 Hours,” would get in the way of Sorkin’s cunning rhythms. Such fears are unfounded, as “Steve Jobs” is a fast-moving, fast-talking anti-biopic examining in real-time the backstage tete-a-tetes between Jobs and colleagues before three important product launches, and doing so with so much personal revelation and psychological haiku that it earns the name of “epic” despite limited coverage of his life.
Michael Fassbender delivers career-best work in a thoroughly towering performance as Steve Jobs, completely inhabiting the script’s condensed, mythical interpretation of the Apple titan as an arrogant, petty, and fearlessly shrewd creative conductor, a man who won’t allow everyday kindness to distract him from all-time greatness, or so he believes. He’s not a techno-savvy engineer nor a business connoisseur, but as he puts it, the engineers “play their instruments. I play the orchestra.” Even while looking not a lick like the real Jobs, Fassbender makes you believe the man had a chiseled jaw and slick corporate do. It’s an embodiment of Jobs’s spirit, not a biography, a painting, not a photograph. I’m glad. Too often we get photographs, the “greatest hits” album that can’t possibly do them justice when truncated through two hours and change. By focusing on three seminal moments in Apple’s history, Boyle and Sorkin manage the nearly impossible task of conveying Jobs’s whole career through interactions with a who’s who: assistant and “work wife” Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), engineer and friend Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), Apple CEO John Scully (Jeff Daniels), former girlfriend Chris-Anne Brennan (Katherine Waterston), and Lisa Brennan, the daughter he denied paternity of for years. And they do it all without the pitfalls of obvious exposition or overused flashbacks.
Daniels continues what he started in “The Martian” with another no-nonsense figurehead, this time as real-life executive Scully, the tycoon who began as Steve’s father figure and ended as the man who fired him. Winslet is marvelous for the first time in years, casting aside her Divergent villain to play Steve’s only real friend, a Polish immigrant whose accent pipes up when she’s angry, and she gets plenty angry at Jobs in the midst of his paternal ignorance. She’s his conscience and she’s the only person who’s good at standing up to him. Rogen is impressively dramatic, playing Wozniak first as a young man still idolizing his garage partner, then as a wiser man tired of letting a frigid friendship stop him from challenging this genius on moral and intellectual grounds. Michael Stahlbarg, so under-used in Hollywood, is Steve’s long-time IT wiz, the guy he threatens when things go wrong backstage, and yet, the guy who mentors his child when Steve’s patriarchal choices become decidedly uncertain. Regardless of these trespasses, it IS his daughter Lisa who ultimately provides him the opportunity for genuine redemption. Sorkin follows their relationship, among others, through the prism of these sequences, and it’s mesmerizing watching the subtle changes in Jobs’s approach to fatherhood or lack thereof, ditto his approach to criticisms. In more than one scene, he admits argumentative defeat by acquiescing the gift of money, and only after stonewalling those people with minutes of mental gymnastics, as if to make them beg for a way out of the conversation.
Fassbender fulfills these stage demands and more, Sorkin’s rat-a-tat-tat verbiage rolling off the tongue like he was born to sound that way. Sometimes it calls attention to itself, such as when Jobs, in reference to the Macintosh debut, proclaims “the two most significant events of the twentieth century: the Allies win the war, and this.” That is, until you realize he’s talking about Alan Turing, not an accomplishment of war unrelated to the evolution of computing. Similar layers persist throughout, apparent in performance as well as dialogue, adding up to a masterpiece that’ll surely take more than one viewing to fully digest. Boyle, for his part, injects visual flourishes when they’re necessary, like flitting reality for a mural of historical reverence while Steve explains his plan for the future, or employing three different stocks (grainy 16mm, classical 35mm, and modern digital) for shooting those disparate periods in Steve’s journey. With the help of an incredible lead actor and ensemble, he and Sorkin have created a genius and cinematically definitive portrait of the late, great, and flawed entrepreneur.