Film Review: Steve Jobs

by Carrie Kahn on October 16, 2015

Sorkin, Boyle get the Job(s) done with fast-paced drama

Steve Jobs (Michael Fassbender) argues with his daughter Lisa (Perla Haney-Jardine) just before the iMac launch…

Perhaps no picture has been more anticipated here in the tech capital of the Bay Area than the Aaron Sorkin-penned and Danny Boyle-directed biopic of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, based on Walter Isaacson’s best-selling 2011 biography of the same name. Sorkin and Boyle, with their similar frenetic writing and directing styles (think The Social Network meets Slumdog Millionaire) prove to be the ideal team to dramatize the life of the Peninsula-raised inventor, entrepreneur, original tech titan, and icon. Indeed, their picture lives up to expectations, succeeding as both a fascinating character study, and as a historical dramatization of seminal events that took place here in the Bay Area, but ultimately touched the entire world.

The picture is structured into three acts, each corresponding to a major Apple product launch. We begin with the 1984 Macintosh launch (filmed at the Flint Center in Cupertino), then the 1988 launch of Job’s NEXT cube computer at the San Francisco Opera House, and, finally, jump forward ten years to the 1998 iMac launch, filmed at Davies Symphony Hall. Jobs is played by German-Irish actor Michael Fassbender, who, while bearing distractingly little resemblance to the real man, manages to inhabit his persona with such authority and confidence that we are quickly and easily able to lose ourselves in the performance.

Each of the three launches is filmed in real time, as the clock counts down the minutes before Jobs needs to be on stage, while various other characters approach him backstage to talk and/or argue (“It’s like five minutes before a launch, everyone tells me what they really think,” Jobs says at one point). This structure has its plusses and minuses: it definitely provides an easy device for characters to interact with Jobs and bring major issues from his life to the forefront, but it does begin to feel a bit repetitive, and it also assumes some familiarity on the viewer’s part with Jobs and his career and personal history, especially as the picture makes big leaps in time.

… and also has it out with Apple CEO John Sculley (Jeff Daniels, l.)…

Indeed, Sorkin’s trademark rapid-fire dialogue and Boyle’s breakneck direction certainly help to make the picture high-energy and intense, but if you want a slower-placed, detailed, chronological narrative of Jobs’s life, you’re probably better off either watching Alex Gibney’s much more in-depth documentary Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine, which came out earlier this year, or reading Isaacson’s book.

That’s not to say, however, that the Sorkin-Boyle collaboration disappoints; with its zealous energy and brisk pacing, it’s never anything but highly entertaining, and with its snapshot-to-snapshot approach, it does give us some insight into Jobs’s personal and professional psyche, just by virtue of watching and listening to Jobs interact with others. In his conversations (or rather, disagreements) with Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen, doing his best work to date), Macintosh Marketing Director Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet, playing exasperated with a Polish accent), Apple CEO John Sculley (familiar Sorkin player Jeff Daniels), engineer Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg), and, perhaps most importantly, ex-girlfriend Chrisann (Katherine Waterston) and their daughter Lisa (very well played at 19 by Perla Haney-Jardine), we get a glimpse of a man who was mercurial, stubborn, condescending, and selfish, but who also was usually the most intelligent, creative, visionary, and charismatic person in the room.

The film implies that a lot of Jobs’s insecurities, motivations, and behavior — especially in terms of insisting on control of all situations — stemmed from his adoption as an infant. Jobs initially denies paternity of his daughter Lisa (the fact that one of his first computers was named LISA, he tells Lisa and her mother Chrisann, was just a coincidence; he insists the name stood for “Local Integrated Systems Architecture”). We eventually see Jobs fully accept Lisa as the film jumps forward, but, by then, we’ve already formed opinions of him as being cold, aloof, and often hostile, qualities we see played out again and again in the exchanges he has with even his most trusted confidants. Two of the best scenes in the movie are the charged confrontations he has with Rogen’s Wozniak and Haney-Jardine’s Lisa, both of which are a trifecta of superb direction, writing, and acting.

… and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen, r.) isn’t spared, either.

In addition to its strengths as a well-crafted film, though, half the fun of watching a movie with a local angle like this one, naturally, is seeing all the Bay Area locations. One of the film’s flashback scenes finds Jobs and Sculley having dinner at a restaurant owned by Jobs’s biological father; the scene was shot at Berkeley’s La Méditerranée Cafe on College Avenue. And, in the spirit of dramatic license, we’ll cut the filmmakers some slack, even though they stage the pivotal scene between Jobs and Lisa on the roof of a parking garage that’s supposed to be right on top of Davies Symphony Hall, although, of course, no such parking lot exists (astute viewers will note that this scene was clearly filmed at one of the downtown garages – maybe Sutter-Stockton)?

Sorkin and Boyle also bring some levity to the proceedings, which helps to balance the many stressful, dramatic scenes. A running joke about two key colleagues named Andy (engineer Hertzfeld, and launch coordinator Andy Cunningham (Sarah Snook)), stays funny throughout, and an amusing exchange about the grammatical correctness of Chiat/Day’s famous “Think Different” iMac commercial will no doubt please English majors. And of course Sorkin’s sharp writing is a gift to his actors; Rogen’s Wozniak telling Jobs, “I’m tired of being Ringo when I was John” beautifully condenses Woz’s dispute with Jobs into a single, powerful metaphor.

Steve Jobs, then, is by no means a comprehensive biography of the man, but as a look into a few significant episodes in his life, it works exceedingly well at giving us an understanding of — and yes, even empathy for — a fierce, brilliant leader who wasn’t always liked, but who struggled and grew personally and professionally, just as so many of us strive to do. With its smart, edgy script and deft performances, this compelling biopic is worth seeing.


Steve Jobs opens today at Bay Area theaters.

Carrie Kahn

Moving from the arthouse to the multiplex with grace, ease, and only the occasional eye roll. Proud new member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle.

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