Review: ‘Steve Jobs’

Richard Roeper
Universal Press Syndicate

It’s possible we spend more time backstage with the principals in “Steve Jobs” than we did with the main characters in “A Chorus Line,” “All That Jazz” and maybe even “Birdman,” come to think of it.

It’s an eccentric storytelling choice on the part of the blazingly talented screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (“The Social Network,” “A Few Good Men,” et al) and the equally gifted director Danny Boyle (“Trainspotting,” “Slumdog Millionaire”), and it’s certainly not the most commercially accessible method to “biopic” the patron saint of desktops, laptops, portable music libraries, phones and amazing touchpads of various sizes.

But as can be said of most Apple products, it’s a wonder to behold — despite a few irritating glitches.

Michael Fassbender will be in every best actor conversation from now until Oscar night (and deservedly so) for his mesmerizing turn as the legendary and legendarily difficult visionary Jobs, who became arguably the most influential and most famous powerhouse the computer universe has ever known, despite the fact that he wasn’t an engineer or a designer or a programmer.

As Jobs matter-of-factly puts it with blinding, unbridled ego, he was more like a symphony conductor. As Jobs saw it, bright shining minds such as his old garage mate Steve Wozniak were like talented musicians with seats in the front row in the orchestra pit — but they were nothing without Jobs the magnificent, the conductor who put it all together and created lasting greatness.

“Steve Jobs” is adapted from Walter Isaacson’s terrific nonfiction biography, and many of the basic plot points are based on public events and well-researched reportage, but Sorkin and Boyle have fictionalized that foundation into three distinctive, highly impressionistic acts of about 40 minutes apiece, each act centered around the drama surrounding Jobs in the minutes and seconds before he takes the stage to introduce the Next Big Thing.

Act One introduces us to Jobs in 1984, a couple of days after the famous “1984” Super Bowl ad, as he’s about to unveil the Macintosh.

Act Two takes place in 1988, after Jobs parted ways with Apple in spectacularly controversial fashion and was preparing to introduce the world to the NeXT Cube.

Act Three is in 1998, with the prodigal Jobs back with Apple and about to change the world with the introduction of the iMac.

In the first act, Fassbender’s Jobs looks and acts more like the villain in a superhero movie than a tech guru. He’s lean and muscled, he wears a suit and a bow tie, he berates and threatens to humiliate underlings if they can’t make things perfect by the time he takes to the stage to introduce the Macintosh — and he’s cruelly dismissive of ex-girlfriend Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston) and only slightly less so when it comes to her 5-year-old daughter, Lisa (Makenzie Moss), whom everyone but Jobs recognizes as Jobs’ daughter.

The same key figures in Jobs’ life show up backstage prior to each unveiling. Sometimes it makes perfect sense for them to be there; on a few occasions, it’s such an abstract conceit, we almost wonder if Jobs is hallucinating.

An almost unrecognizable Kate Winslet (working some kind of Polish accent, to varying degrees of success) plays Jobs’ marketing guru and confidante.

The great Jeff Daniels (already a master of Sorkin-speak due to “The Newsroom”) plays Apple CEO John Sculley, a father figure who clearly loves Jobs but is more frustrated than most by Jobs’ unwillingness to compromise or listen to reason.

Michael Stuhlbarg is Andy Hertzfeld, a founding member of the Apple Macintosh development team. Seth Rogen is terrific as Steve Wozniak, who pleads with Jobs to make some sort of effort to be a decent human being. “It’s not binary!” says Woz to Jobs in a futile effort to explain you can be a genius AND compassionate.

Ripley Sobo plays daughter Lisa at age 9. Perla Haney-Jardine takes over the role when Lisa is 19. It just seems … weird that Jobs and his daughter have so many dramatic, life-changing moments just minutes before he’s about to introduce a new product, but most of it works, thanks to Fassbender’s brilliance, Sorkin’s sharp dialogue and the fine work of all three actresses playing Lisa.

Boyle’s camera swerves and zooms and swoops around Jobs as he rehearses his presentations, engages in heated debate with present and former allies, bats away attempts by others to pierce his armor and awkwardly attempts to connect with his daughter.

Each leg of the trilogy has a distinctive visual personality. Act One was shot in 16mm film; Act Two in 35mm; Act Three in digital so crisp it jumps from the screen. It’s gimmick as art.

As was the case with “The Social Network” (screenplay by Sorkin) and its portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg and the birth of Facebook, we’re reminded time and again in “Steve Jobs” that a man who revolutionized communication and helped hundreds of millions to connect was himself incredibly incompetent at human interaction. It’s Shakespearean-level irony.

“Your products are better than you are,” Jobs is told at one point.

That’s the idea, he replies.