Twenty minutes into Danny Boyle’s “Steve Jobs,” (now playing at AMC Georgetown) Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen) is describing to his partner and the film’s titular character (Michael Fassbender) the massive audience just behind a stage’s curtain, eager to hear him introduce a new product, the 1984 Macintosh computer. As Wozniak struggles to describe the enthusiasm of the crowd, Jobs, pressed for time, barks at him that he “can’t really wait for him to come up with a metaphor.” That same sense of urgency carries every scene in “Steve Jobs,” powering it forward as Boyle’s camera frenetically moves backstage from room to room. Written with breathless dialogue by Aaron Sorkin, it hums for two hours nearly without a false note.
Brilliantly played with madcap energy and charisma by Michael Fassbender, Jobs is portrayed throughout the film as equal parts genius and bully. The same moment he’s valued at 40 million dollars and a finalist for Time Magazine Man of the Year, he’s vociferously denying that he’s birthed a daughter and refusing to give his ex-girlfriend money that will take her off of welfare. Several of the film’s supporting characters tell Jobs to his face how miserable and alienated he makes his fellow Apple employees, yet the fire in his eyes for absolute perfection glows stronger.
Though it is Fassbender’s performance that carries the film, it is propelled by an incredibly strong cast of supporting characters making rotating appearances in its three acts, including a near-perfect Kate Winslet (always by Jobs’s side as Apple marketing exec Joanna Hoffman), Wozniak, the wonderful character actor Michael Stuhlbarg’s Andy Hertzfeld, and Jeff Daniels’s John Sculley, the CEO of Apple during the 1980s and early ‘90s. All are excellent.
The movie, thankfully, is not a traditional biopic, in that it doesn’t trace the entire arc of Jobs’s life. In fact, it only covers 14 years of it. The film focuses on significant moments for Jobs and his career: the 1984 introduction of the Macintosh computer, the 1988 launch of NeXT Cube, his failed project after he was let go from Apple, and his 1998 redemption as he introduces the iMac to the world. Even to the casual follower of Jobs’s life, these moments are familiar. However, Boyle enlivens each act with a different visual style, giving each part a distinctive look meant to reflect the product that is being launched and the era in which it’s being introduced.
Despite the director’s visual flourishes and the pyrotechnic performances, however, Sorkin is the real star of the film. After “A Few Good Men,” “The American President,” “Charlie Wilson’s War,” and winning an Oscar for “The Social Network,” the crackling cadence of his film dialogue is well-known to audiences at this point. But this time the blows land harder, the thorns are sharper, even more so than “The Social Network,” up to this point the most dark and cynical material of his career. In one early scene, Jobs berates Macintosh controller Andy for a giant, potentially hugely embarrassing technological glitch. He threatens to first expose his incompetence to the entire crowd at the launch, and then compares the consequences of his failure to a game of Russian Roulette: fix it now or your brains will sprayed out all over Cupertino, California. One-liners like this that make you both laugh and wince come often.
The film’s most recurring motif is this dichotomy of genius and bully, and the role that history has in reminding us of this dichotomy. For the 1998 iMac launch, Jobs uses a “Think Different” tagline in its ads, with an eye toward shaping the future, all the while employing imagery of famous enigmatic icons who tectonically shifted the world, like Alan Turing and Miles Davis. But the irascible genius most explicitly compared to Jobs in the film is Bob Dylan. He’s in every act of the movie, from his lyrics in Jobs’s speech to his likeness being used in the Apple ads to “Shelter from the Storm” being played over the closing credits. By employing Dylan so readily, Sorkin seems to be saying that even though the times and the products that define us may change, the people who sweep that change forward remain the same: intense, impenetrable, and, maybe, to quote Dylan himself, “creatures ‘void of form.”