Aaron Sorkin is setting himself as the preferred cinematic chronicler of the major figures of the digital age. So far, that’s working out pretty well. Following The Social Network, Sorkin turns his keyboard to the one person who commands more attention and fascination than anyone else who’s made their millions (or, rather, billions) off of circuit boards fueling nearly miraculous tools of communication and information processing. The late Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple and brilliant orchestrator of modern age cult of personality, has already been the subject of enough film treatments that it’s possible to create a considered list of the best acting performances over the years given by individuals playing vital Apple engineer Steve Wozniak. As with the earlier film, Sorkin uses the true life story as a launching pad rather than a blueprint. It’s an entryway into a consideration of what makes, drives, undoes, and characterizes a so-called great man in this day and age. Whatever the actual title of the film, go ahead call it Citizen Jobs and that will be fair representation of what Sorkin is after.
Thankfully, Steve Jobs follows the recent trend of framing biography around a few telling moments rather than a birth-to-death trudge through a life. The film wisely frames its conceit around the public events that cemented Jobs’s reputation as an impresario: the launches of ostensibly game-changing products, announced through presentations to massive, enraptured audiences. The first is the introduction of the Apple Macintosh, in 1984, which is followed by the NeXT Computer, in 1988. Finally, triumphantly brought back to the company he started and was ousted from, Jobs gets the floundering corporation back on track with the iMac, in 1998. One of the most inspired choices made within the film is to largely ignore the presentations themselves and instead encapsulate the places in his life where Jobs resided at those moments, dramatized by recurring conflicts with a handful of people close to him. The set-ups are obviously phony — tidy and convenient processions of the exact same individuals, often in the same order, with such repetitive certainty that there’s even a meta callout to it in the third act — and yet feel completely right. The best way to discover the man is through the fraught and evolving relationships he existed within, sometimes uneasily.
Just as the film exhibits Sorkin’s usual strengths — beautifully fluid dialogue, intelligent considerations of the conflicts of powerful people, an exuberance to the storytelling — it’s also mildly hobbled by his pathological tics. Occasionally, the back and forth banter betrays a hollowness. Similarly, director Danny Boyle brings his trademark visual inventiveness and restless energy to the storytelling, occasionally undercutting the film’s effectively with overly intrusive gimmicks, like a camera swirling around an exit sign or weak tea projections on a hallway wall that illustrates an explanation. These are are bugs rather than devastating viruses. Largely, the film snaps with a winning commitment to telling an intelligent story in a compelling fashion, asserting that wisely deployed language is as a dynamic as bombastic, kinetic action.
At the center of the film, there’s Michael Fassbender, playing Jobs with a genial sidestep of impersonation and an admirable approach of boring into to a deeper truth of inner being, recalling Jason Segel’s superlative turn as David Foster Wallace in The End of the Tour. There are nice supporting performances all around him, led by Kate Winslet (despite a slightly wavering Polish accent), Seth Rogen, and Michael Stuhlbarg (every enlightened director’s secret weapon), but just as Jobs dominated the attention of any room he went into, the movie is owned by Fassbender. For years now, he’s been the best part of practically every movie he’s been in, but he’s never had a showcase quite like this, one that draws fully on his easy charm, his undulating threads of danger, and his quiet cunning. It’s perfectly fitting that a film that examines, in part, the heady influence of a charismatic figure benefits immeasurably from the presence of a magnetic actor right at the center of the frame. Sorkin provides the words, and Boyle provides the images. Fassbender, critically, provides the soul.