When do you ever see someone get a second chance at a biopic? “Steve Jobs” is in a strange place, release-wise, because, while the public undoubtedly knows who Jobs is by his point, there have been myriad books, TV specials, and now two feature films about the former Apple Inc. CEO’s life and legacy. The man is easily labeled as a genius and a jerk under the same breath, so it’s easy for most people to shrug most of these endeavors off by saying Jobs’ id has been explored sufficiently. However, one of the magic things about movies is how they can change over time with different, exciting directors at the helm and talented writers scripting their scenes.
“Steve Jobs” is no exception, with Aaron Sorkin, the intelligent writer of films such as “The Social Network” and creator of the sharp political TV dramas “The West Wing” and “The Newsroom,” writing the film. Its director, Danny Boyle, is a diverse, personal filmmaker — initially the right choice for “Steve Jobs.” Boyle’s direction here is restrained to make way for Sorkin’s script. It’s essentially an expectedly witty and fast-paced stage play, as the film is divided up into three acts that showcase 16 years of Jobs’ life: the launch of the Macintosh in 1984, the falling out of Jobs and Apple with the launch of the NeXT Black Box in 1988, and Jobs’ triumphant return to Apple in the form of the iMac in 1998. Each sequence takes place real-time backstage before each product launch, and what ensues is two hours of talking and arguing as Jobs faces troubles with his colleagues and personal life.
“Steve Jobs” does not attempt to paint Jobs as the messiah, which can easily be done in typical biopic form. It accomplishes this in part with the performances, which are all exceptional, but the true star is Michael Fassbender as Steve Jobs. Fassbender has long been a diverse actor, just as Boyle has been a diverse director. Fassbender doesn’t look like Jobs and it’s soon discovered that it doesn’t matter: his performance is a revelation. He takes the script and just flies with it, every biting and trenchant word that comes out of his mouth is so utterly convincing he makes us believe he is Steve Jobs, warts and all. Fassbender makes it really hard to like Jobs at many points, as he yells at his colleagues to “fix it,” and angrily denies that he is the father of his daughter. His reading of Sorkin’s script is near-perfection, but the other players deliver convincing and equally powerful performances as well. Seth Rogen plays Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple, with aplomb, firing back at Fassbender as if the two really are bickering over the future of the company and who produced what. Jeff Daniels, Kate Winslet, Katherine Waterston and Michael Stuhlbarg fill out the supporting cast and not a single one delivers a lackluster performance.
The acting, along with most of Sorkin’s script, is what makes “Steve Jobs” work. While both do create some potent moments, the script often feels incomplete. There is so much talking about business – who fired whom, who destroyed this, who invented that – and not enough about Jobs himself. Though there is a moving through line about Jobs’ strained and tumultuous relationship with his daughter, Lisa Brennan-Jobs (Ripley Sobo, Makenzie Moss), and her mother, Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston), most of the many scenes in the movie end up feeling like a 16-year-long argument. Sorkin may have been taking these scenes from reality, but they end up feeling a bit stiff and slightly insightful, if not well-acted. Boyle, on the other hand, directs the film almost without the realization that he is there, much to his chagrin. Boyle, who can often tightly command the most intense of scenes (see the arm amputation scene from “127 Hours”), does an adequate job of making the audience feel as if they are simply listening on these conversations, taking part in the chaos that is Jobs’ life. This method works sometimes, but it especially falters in the movie’s overly sentimental ending which sneaks up on the audience with its homeliness after the preceding two hours of damning back and forth that paints Jobs as a difficult businessman and a confused father. Once the movie ends, it’s hard to believe Boyle directed the entire film as his style quietly quits working as the film continues.
However the public ends up seeing Jobs after this movie is not entirely important. Viewing “Steve Jobs” is a bipolar experience that brings momentary moments of happiness in the bright writing and remarkable performances, particularly from Fassbender, but is bogged down by ho-hum direction and a partial sketch of the man it so dynamically attempts to portray. It may be the last Jobs biopic the public ever gets, but the performances and writing make it fun for those who love a good argument and peerless acting.