That Steve Jobs's unquestionable genius went hand-in-hand with his equally-unquestionable self-possession is hardly a revelation. Like all people of vision, the co-founder of Apple Computers was trapped in that fissure between the man he was and the man we saw. Long before his death in 2011, Jobs had taken on a larger-than-life mystique that grew exponentially with each new reality-warping product the company launched, and his passing has only cemented that mystique.
But again, none of that is news. What makes Steve Jobs, the new film directed by Danny Boyle from a script by Aaron Sorkin, such a bravura piece of cinema isn't how it depicts Jobs, but rather the way -- just like its subject -- it breaks down our traditional expectations from the biopic genre and channels them into something entirely unique. Rather than attempting to show Jobs's entire journey from birth to death, the movie (starring an impossibly charismatic Michael Fassbender in the title role) frames our relationship with the man through three key events.
We begin in 1984, in the aftermath of Apple's famous Orwell-themed ad heralding the impending arrival of the Macintosh. Jobs, just shy of thirty, is about to unveil the computer to the waiting public. For the second act we land in 1989, as Jobs, having been fired from the company he founded, is primed to launch the doomed-to-fail NeXT computer. Finally we end in 1998, as Jobs, now back at Apple is set to reveal the iMac. All throughout, he deals with harried assistant Joanna (Kate Winslet), and has various encounters with erstwhile father figure John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), among others.
Fassbender doesn't exactly resemble Jobs, but he becomes him all the same, and when you look at the movie's structure, there's something vaguely Dickensian about the arc Sorkin has sketched out for him. In essence, the three acts/product reveals function as Christmases past, present, and future for the Ebenezer-esque Jobs as he undergoes his emotional transformation -- embodied by his relationship with his daughter at different stages of her life. Following that metaphor, I suppose the Bob Cratchit role in this parable falls to Seth Rogen as Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak.
While Fassbender is understandably getting the lion's share of chatter, this really is an incredibly compelling performance from Rogen, who sublimates many of his more notable tics to portray Wozniak as an almost tragic figure in this particular narrative (a characterization of his life that the real Wozniak strenuously disagrees with, mind you). Per Boyle and Sorkin's calculation, "Woz" is the unequal equal partner. The man who put in the time in the trenches, who did the work, but who's been consigned by history to stand just behind the guy who gets all the applause.
At one point the exasperated Wozniak questions Jobs about what he does that deserves so many accolades, when so much of the actual work is done by others who are just as worthy of acknowledgement. "The musicians play the instruments," responds Jobs. "I play the orchestra." It's a trademark zinger from Sorkin (whose dialogue I will never, ever get tired of hearing), and while it may never have actually been said by Jobs, it nonetheless exemplifies how the line between bravado and egotism is sometimes paper thin. To the credit of both Fassbender and Sorkin, however, we mostly remain on the right side of that divide.
The world after Apple computers is fundamentally different from the one that existed before it, and Jobs's role in that transition will forever make him worthy of examination and, for all his personal failings, admiration. Like Aaron Sorkin's work on The Social Network before it, Steve Jobs isn't meant to serve as historical document of a man, but rather a meditation on a movement. With Boyle directing, Sorkin on script, and a roster of supremely talented performers going through their paces in front of the camera, Steve Jobs is a filmmaking achievement of the highest order, and one of the best movies of the year. A