There's no shortage of opinions on the life and career of Steve Jobs. But it's hard to name anyone who matched the Apple computer co-founder's cultural impact over the last 40 years. With the Macintosh, Jobs re-imagined the personal computer as a source of empowerment for the masses. He built a graphics company called Pixar, which revolutionized animated movies. For better or worse, Jobs took a struggling music industry by the hand and dragged it — kicking and screaming — into the digital age. Though he died in 2011 from pancreatic cancer, Jobs' legacy lives on not only in culture-changing products like the iPhone, but also as inspiration for legions of self-styled creative entrepreneurs. Surely he qualifies for the kind of lavish Hollywood biopic that transforms celebrated figures into mythic ones.
Fortunately for everyone concerned, Steve Jobs is not that film. Directed by Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire) from a screenplay by Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network, TV's The West Wing), Steve Jobs is an impressionistic, highly fictionalized portrait based on three key moments (all product introductions) in its subject's life. It's strikingly original but easier to admire than to love — which, not coincidentally, is how many viewed Jobs during his lifetime.
Divided into three sections, Steve Jobs imagines the last 40 minutes or so leading up to the public debuts of the Macintosh computer in 1984 (which didn't succeed initially but later changed the world), the NeXT computer in 1988 (which Jobs may have intended as revenge on Apple after being ousted from the company by its board) and the iMac in 1998 (Jobs' first product after his triumphant return to Apple).
These are high-stakes, tension-filled events meant to illuminate Jobs' most important personal relationships and his many professional challenges. Orbiting planet Jobs are long-suffering publicist Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), Apple CEO John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), original Apple engineer Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg) and Jobs' daughter Lisa (played by three different actresses as the character ages).
Officially, Steve Jobs is based on Walter Isaacson's best-selling biography of the same name, but that seems more a matter of awarding necessary credit than identifying primary source material. The film delivers a nonstop torrent of dialogue, like an action movie that replaces guns and explosions with words. It's a lot to take in, but the screenplay holds significant pleasures for those in sync with Sorkin's signature style. Boyle mounts a unique visual approach to each of the film's three acts, moving from the handmade look of 16 mm film to the more polished 35 mm before arriving at high-resolution digital for the forward-looking final section.
At the center of the film is the extraordinary Michael Fassbender in the title role. Though he looks nothing like Jobs, Fassbender embodies the character with mind-blowing ferocity, again proving he has few peers among contemporary actors. Winslet and Daniels raise their games just to keep up with him. As Jobs' geeky former partner, Rogen is as amiable and goofy as ever and seems like he's in a different movie from Fassbender. But the contrast at least spotlights the extremes of temperament represented by the two characters.
For all its strengths, Steve Jobs doesn't quite add up to a satisfying experience. Sorkin's hopelessly unlikable Jobs leaves a void at the center of the film and prevents it from earning its almost-happy ending. Even tortured geniuses deserve a little understanding, especially with benefit of hindsight and the film's unlimited artistic license. — KEN KORMAN