In Steve Jobs, a Fascinating Subject Remains Elusive

Despite Aaron Sorkin's shrewd script, Danny Boyle's sharp direction, and a riveting performance by Michael Fassbender, the movie never quite gets under the skin of its protagonist.

Universal Pictures

Leave it to the screenwriter Aaron Sorkin to describe the life of Steve Jobs in the form of a behind-the-scenes showbiz tale. He did it for sports with Sports Night, for sketch comedy with Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, and for news with The Newsroom. Now, with Steve Jobs, he’s done it for the tech revolution. In keeping with this framework, the film presents its titular subject as one part visionary, three parts impresario, and narcissist all the way through.

The movie, directed with customary panache by Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, Slumdog Millionaire), is a canny narrative told in three distinct acts, each involving the launch of a particular product and each presented in its own aesthetic style. The unveiling of the Macintosh in 1984 is shot on grainy 16mm film and scored with vintage synthesizers. The introduction of the NeXT computer, which took place in 1988 during Jobs’s hiatus from Apple, uses 35mm film and a full orchestra. And the 1998 launch of the iMac, following his triumphant return to the company, is shot digitally and features a contemporary electronic score.

The result is a film that almost advertises its own artificiality—Sorkin has been upfront about the fact that almost all of the dialogue is fictionalized—and, as such, one that’s more akin to a stage play than to a conventional biopic. In the minutes preceding each product launch, Jobs (Michael Fassbender) interacts with a recurring array of friendly antagonists: his right-hand woman and “work wife,” Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet); the Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen); the onetime Apple CEO John Sculley (Jeff Daniels); the engineer Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg); and Jobs’s daughter, Lisa (played by three different actresses at different ages). I doubt I’ll be the first to note the resemblance to A Christmas Carol and its ghosts of past, present, and future.

On a technical level, Steve Jobs is a triumph. Although talky in the extreme, it almost buzzes with electricity. The dialogue is an intracardiac injection of pure, adrenalized Sorkin. And, as David Fincher did in The Social Network, Boyle imbues the performers’ many backs and forths with the narrative velocity of a car chase.

Fassbender is remarkable in the title role, offering arguably his best performance to date. When playing a figure as well known as Jobs there are two courses that a performer can typically steer. One is straightforward mimesis: capturing the character’s look (possibly with prosthetic assistance), mannerisms, and intonations—as, for instance, Cate Blanchett did, frustratingly, with Katharine Hepburn in The Aviator. The other is to leave such feats to the impressionists and instead seek to inhabit the person beneath the tics and accent—as Christopher Plummer did, brilliantly, with his portrayal of Mike Wallace in The Insider. (Readers may recall, alas, which role won an Oscar and which was not even nominated.) Fassbender opts for the latter path here, to tremendous effect. His Jobs is by any reasonable measure an awful person: stubborn, ungracious, and utterly self-absorbed. Yet his vitality is such that it lends magnetism to his mania. Even at his worst, it’s hard to look away.

The rest of the cast is strong as well, despite being given little opportunity to do more than offer themselves up as mirrors to Jobs’s megalomania. All five supporting characters are principally defined by the fact that they are, at least in contrast to the man they orbit, relatively normal, decent human beings. Woz wants Jobs, always obsessed with the new, to offer a mere acknowledgement of the old Apple II product team that made the company an initial success. Sculley wants to let bygones be bygones. And everyone wants Jobs to treat his daughter, Lisa, with some minimal degree of parental attention and affection. (Late in the film, Jobs complains, “It’s like five minutes before every launch, everyone goes to a bar, gets drunk, and tells me what they really think of me.” It’s a clever nod to the film’s strict architecture, at once self-indicting and self-inoculating.)

It is the fitfully improving relationship between Jobs and Lisa that offers the central narrative arc of the film. (In the first act, he denies his paternity and unpersuasively declares that Apple’s earlier “Lisa” computer was not named after her.) This subplot makes for a tidy tale, but a rather narrow one. And it is hard to shake the sense that the filmmakers are to some degree intent on advertising their “scoop” in getting the real-life Lisa to talk to them, much the way a newspaper article leads with any new scrap of proprietary reporting, however incremental or irrelevant. (Sorkin’s script is otherwise adapted principally from Walter Isaacson’s 2011 biography, with which Lisa declined to cooperate.)

The result is a redemptive fable (though one in which the redemption comes rather cheap), at once artful, elegant, and clean. If there is a complaint to be made—and I believe there is—it is that it is too clean. I have no particular grievance with the movie’s many departures from fact. (It seems ungenerous to deny the filmmakers their own “reality-distortion field.”) But by stripping out any and all complications from the story it wishes to tell, the movie denies itself the opportunity for nuance and puts a ceiling on its own ambition. In order to make the Jobs-Lisa relationship the ultimate measure of the man, for instance, no mention is made of the fact that by the final act in 1998, Jobs was married—a union that lasted two decades until his 2011 death—and had two younger children, soon to be three.

I enjoyed Steve Jobs a great deal, and I suspect most moviegoers will feel the same way. But I left the theater with no better understanding of its subject than when I arrived. For all its exceptional craftsmanship, the film ultimately lacks a true inner life. In this way it resembles the NeXT computer that Jobs unveiled in 1988: a beautiful, obsidian cube that, alas, didn’t have an operating system.