I have to admit, I went into Steve Jobs with a certain amount of trepidation. I’m fairly opposed to the Hollywood-standard method of translating the complexities of famous people’s lives into a three act structure by cramming their entire Wikipedia summary into a three-act narrative. Thankfully, director Danny Boyle and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin are smart and talented enough where that hasn’t turned out to be an issue for the second Jobs-centric biopic in two years. No, what the duo have created is a very impressive character study that neither lionizes nor entirely demonizes the controversial Apple CEO.
They avoid this pitfall by working with an unusual structure. The film’s three acts take place across the backstage preparation of three pivotal product launching events: the Macintosh in 1984; after Jobs was fired from Apple, the NeXT in 1988; and after being rehired as CEO, the iMac in 1998. In the build-up to these enormous events, Jobs (Michael Fassbender) can be seen managing his fragile social circule, including a condescending friendship with Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogan in role perfectly cast), a crumbling bond with his mentor John Scully (Jeff Daniels), and a relationship with a daughter he refuses to acknowledge as his own, aged five, nine, and nineteen in the respective years/acts. Each of these sequences ends before the launch presentation actually begins, with the events of the time gaps explained through archival news footage. Though the gimmick is somewhat transparent, particularly with how Jobs must meet with each of the important people in his life in each act as if going down a checklist, it works primarily as a method to keep us from being bogged down with the parts of Jobs’s life inconsequential to telling this story.
It is Sorkin’s writing that really holds the entire thing together, with a slow burning tension that rises gradually before each launch event that only continues when the catharsis of seeing the launch is denied to us. Yet there is always room for a relieving comic witticism when most needed, which keeps the film from becoming overwhelming. This is to say nothing of how Danny Boyle’s direction capitalizes on such writing, keeping focus on Jobs to have us piggyback on his emotions, which not only serves to make him relatable, but also to show us a complex portrait of a troubled man.
And what a portrait it paints. Fassbender may not look much like Jobs, but he gets the man’s mannerisms down pat and does a great job of differentiating Jobs’s stage presence from his real personality without becoming cartoonishly exaggerated. And the way that Sorkin writes Jobs, he is very clearly a narcissistic and petty person, using and abusing the people around him. But he isn’t all bad. He clearly pushes people away because he’s afraid of the weakness that may foster in him, and his constant quest for perfection and societal justification for his amoral behavior makes him at least intriguing if not sympathetic. It’s a complex representation that is likely to earn Fassbender a well-deserved Oscar nomination (as little as such a nomination can actually mean in relation to an actor’s talent).
The film’s final moments delve a little too far into the saccharine for my tastes, choosing to end on a idolizing note that the film has clearly demonstrated that Jobs doesn’t deserve. However, this is a minor gripe in a film that managed to keep me engaged the whole way through, largely due to excellent acting, fantastic writing, and astute direction. This may be one of the only biopics that actually deserves to find its way into critical top ten lists this year. Check it out.