“Computers aren’t supposed to have human flaws. Why would we want to incept this one with yours?”

Steve Jobs
(USA, 122 min.)
Dir. Danny Boyle, Writ. Aaron Sorkin
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Seth Rogen, Jeff Daniels, Michael Stuhlbarg, Katherine Waterston
Michael Fassbender as Steve Jobs.
Universal Pictures Canada

“Computers aren’t supposed to have human flaws. Why would we want to incept this one with yours?” asks Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen) to Steve Jobs (Michael Fassbender) in a flashback scene of Steve Jobs. This hard-wired drama takes a bite out of the Apple icon as Aaron Sorkin thoroughly and brilliantly deconstructs the way we perceive our heroes with his outstanding script based on Jobs’ rocketing career and monstrous personality. Call it a clash of titans or a battle of gods and men, but Steve Jobs invites an audience to see a man for all his faults and shortcomings, yet asks if the man’s contribution to society is enough to redeem him in the end. At the heart of Steve Jobs, however, is a central philosophical meditation on the circuitry of humans and computers alike: both man and machine have failings, but only one has the capacity for kindness.

The Jobs of Steve Jobs isn’t a man easily admired, as Fassbender trots around the stage in Jobs’ signature dumpy mom jeans. Sorkin and Fassbender create a fascinating Steve Jobs as the film presents the titan akin to one of his own computers. Sleek, sublime, cold, and mechanical, this Steve Jobs is end-to-end Apple design. He’s closed and accessible only by the Apple world, and, like the machines he designs, that’s both his virtue and his failing. Fassbender is excellent in a cool, detached performance that ferociously tackles Jobs’ mania and delusions of grandeur in a turn of near-operatic tyranny as Jobs berates everyone around him so that he can be on top every second of every day. This man puts the ‘I’ in iPod.

Steve Jobs parallels Apple’s creator with the computers he invents and likens him to a Kane figure whose own ambition dehumanizes him. As people become more plugged-in and turned-on in the era of the Apple revolution, they become less personal and more disconnected, too. The film therefore looks critically at Jobs’ success—and there’s no denying that his work at Apple is a game-changer for technology and more—and one feels that the success of Apple is also the downfall of humankind as person to person communication becomes as outdated as the Apple II. The impersonal and detached Jobs, however, can’t transform himself into the computer to which he aspires. As each act intersects Steve’s future with familiar faces from his past—the screenplay devises a smart cycle of repetition and reinvention—he learns that human memory differs from the memory of a hard drive. One cannot wipe oneself clean.

The film eschews biopic convention that dramatizes a person’s life from death to birth, often with a greatest hits narrative, and it instead tackles the complexity of Jobs through three pivotal snapshots. Sorkin structures the film as a three act structure in which each act depicts a product launch during the rise of Apple. These acts, which play out in roughly three forty-minute episodes of real time drama, feel like a thorough evaluation of Jobs’ legacy that zeroes in on select moments in his life to deliver a verdict. Steve Jobs is laudable drama from the complexity and originality of its structure alone.

The device works brilliantly because it focuses on depth of character, which is essential for finding any shred of empathy within the Apple world. The first act shows Jobs prepping to launch the new Macintosh computer in 1984, as he and his long-suffering yet fiercely loyal marketing executive Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet) discuss the future of both Apple and the Jobs empire. Joanna has sympathy for Steve’s own little apple, Lisa, the five year old daughter he vehemently denies, much to the angst of Lisa’s mother, Crisann (Katherine Waterson). As the only person who can reason with the unreasonable Jobs, Joanna plays a pivotal role in the fifteen-year arc that Steve Jobs charts with the launch of the NeXT in 1988 and the iMac in 1998.

Winslet arguably steals the show as Joanna offers a necessary ally and element of sanity to the cold world of Steve Jobs. Every key emotional moment hinges on Winslet’s performance as she grieves for Lisa when it seems that Steve lacks the will to feel for his own daughter. Her latter act ultimatum to Steve that he can either make amends with Lisa or lose his chief marketer is a great moment for Winslet as Joanna unleashes twenty years’ worth of thankless support in a plea for Steve to find his humanity. Kate Winslet is excellent as the Polish-inflected “work wife” at Fassbender’s side as the pair trades the rat-a-tat-tat of Sorkin’s screenplay like a married couple finishing each other’s sentences thanks to years of work and compromise. They’re one of the finest screen duos of the year.

Every member of the Steve Jobs ensemble deserves a point of praise, though. From Jeff Daniels’ deeply humane turn as Steve’s father figure and boss, Jeff Sculley, who undergoes the greatest arc with Jobs in the film, to Michael Stuhlbarg’s riotously antagonistic neurosis to Seth Rogen’s unexpected dramatic gusto, the ensemble of Steve Jobs plays like a cutting-edge symphony. Jobs likens himself to a conductor in the film when Wozniak challenges his authority and contribution to the Apple dynasty, and the impeccable synergy of the cast defies Steve Jobs to hold the baton. An expert conductor is one who feels the rhythm of the ensemble and anticipates their moves, which Jobs arguably does, but a great musician also feels the music. Through Joanna and the three daddy/daughter sessions the film offers, the film offers Jobs some redemption as he recognizes his own failings as a man and parent and tries to correct them as he corrects his own technology. The juxtaposition of humanity from the orchestra to the near inhumanity of the conductor is very powerful.

One never has to like Steve Jobs in order to like Steve Jobs. One, however, must admire the man’s ambition, perseverance, and revolutionary relationship with technology. The film really does capture the sense of change that accompanies Apple products, especially in the film’s final act that introduces the iMac. (As an aside, I should note that I’m actually not a fan of Apple products. All I own is an iPod shuffle, which I begrudgingly bought after putting my standard MP3 player through the wash.) The film weighs the creator against his products as the rise, fall, and rise of Steve Jobs, both as an innovator and as a father, finds redemption.

Comparisons to The Social Network are inevitable as Steve Jobs offers a portrait of a mostly unlikeable man who innovated technology and changed the way people interact with machines and, in turn, themselves. The Sorkin script, for one, rings of the same elaborately metaphorical words and razor-sharp cadence of The Social Network, but Steve Jobs also feels like backstage Shakespeare as the writer constructs tragedy on a bold scale. The film is as slickly assembled as an Apple product thanks to the coolly transcendent cinematography by Alwin H. Küchler, the propulsive editing by Elliot Graham, and the thoroughly innovative score by Daniel Pemberton. The look of Steve Jobs recalls The Social Network, too, but the film’s are mostly comparable in their subject matter, style, and Sorkinness.

Steve Jobs is better than The Social Network—far better in fact—because it invites one key difference: emotion. Whereas The Social Network is steely and clinical, perhaps due to David Fincher’s signature direction, Steve Jobs director Danny Boyle invites the audience to feel. The sheer absence of emotion in Steve Jobs creates a void that one desperately wants to fill. It’s difficult to relate to humans on the end-to-end way that Jobs sees the world, and, through the whip smart crafting of the supporting players whom Jobs sidelines, Steve Jobs gives the audience a thoroughly objective and ultimately winning portrait of a rotten apple.

Rating: ★★★★½ (out of ★★★★★)

Steve Jobs is now playing in theatres.
It opens in Ottawa chez Mayfair on Nov. 13.