Steve Jobs, scripted by Aaron Sorkin from Walter Isaacson’s book about the controversial Apple visionary who inspired a cult of rabid followers, is sleek, swift, nasty, thrillingly talkative entertainment. The screenplay, directed by the hyperkinetic Danny Boyle, has the hallmarks of a rip-roaring three-act play. Make that a three-act play with a Shakespearean-level character at the heart of it, no less. Steve Jobs is set just before three tense, highly theatrical launches of major products that make, break, and remake Jobs’ reputation.
We meet the lofty, distant, self-aggrandizing Jobs (Michael Fassbender in an astonishing performance) in 1984 when he’s already filthy rich and set to unveil the Macintosh following a Super Bowl TV commercial that has consumers salivating for something they don’t even know they need yet. We catch up to him again in 1988 when he’s been ousted from Apple yet doggedly persists in presenting a doomed computer platform. Finally, we’re in 1994 when Jobs has regained control of Apple and will soon revolutionize technology and life as we know it via the iMac. And Jobs saw it all coming.
Stitched in and out of these epochs, each beautifully shot in a distinctly right ‘period’ style, are damning domestic moments with his loving, abandoned daughter (played, in the various acts, by Makenzie Moss, Ripley Sobo, and Perla Haney-Jardine) and the ex girlfriend (the excellent Katherine Waterston) Jobs cruelly slandered in court as a sleep around money-grubber. Sure, there are plenty of boardroom conflicts and dizzying, swirling walk-and-talk scenes with actors screaming Sorkin’s whiplash dialogue at the top of their voices. But the movie’s overriding vibe is steely, creepy and formal. It’s no wonder David Fincher flirted with the idea of making it with Christian Bale as Sorkin. It’s practically a companion piece to Fincher and Sorkin’s misanthropic ode to another megalomaniacal world-changer, The Social Network.
But all that’s blood under the bridge now because Boyle has serviced Sorkin’s material well enough and he’s got an ace in the hole with the shark-eyed Fassbender, who is miraculous, all hustle, energy, and scary grace. His Jobs is flawed, complex, a merciless, mercurial perfectionist who belittles and bullies associates, lacerating them for their failure to achieve absolute perfection.
It’s a performance with awards nominations written all over it. But while Fassbender is busy shooting off rockets, he’s got one hell of a supporting cast that includes a dialed-down Seth Rogen as the less showy, constantly abused and swindled Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak and an out-for-blood performance by Jeff Daniels as John Sculley, Jobs’ longtime pal and opponent. Daniels and Fassbender tear at each other in a roof-raising argument scene that’s every bit as painful as it is memorable. Michael Stuhlbarg is, as always, on point as Apple team member Andy Herzfield who enrages his old boss by sympathetically loaning money to Jobs’ daughter. Kate Winslet has nice moments, too, as Joanna Hoffman Jobs’ warm, loyal confidante, even if her Polish accent gets wonkier during the running time.
It’s been four years since Steve Jobs’ death and we’ve already had two biomovies and a very strong documentary by Alex Gibney Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine that have tried, in their ways, to reveal the man behind the curtain. The black clad Jobs still remains an enigma. Don’t be surprised if another filmmaker or playwright takes another stab one day. Don’t be surprised if they miss by a mile. Some geniuses, evil and otherwise, are ultimately unknowable and inexplicable.