Steve Jobs is essentially a three-act opera. Each part is set at different times, inside different California concert halls, with composer Daniel Pemberton’s soundtrack accompanied by dollops of Bob Dylan and indie rock. The same characters rotate through each act, and at one point, Jobs (a mesmerizing Michael Fassbender) likens them to an orchestra that he conducts.
But instead of being sung, the lyrics are set in screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s distinctive cadence. When scolded for shunning his young daughter, the stubborn, visionary and messianic Apple guru retorts, “God sent his only son on a suicide mission, but we like him anyway because he made trees.” It’s the sort of quintessential Sorkin line you either love or loathe. As with this borderline brilliant film, I emphatically align with the former.
Eschewing the standard cradle-to-grave biopic, Sorkin (an Oscar winner for The Social Network) and director Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, Slumdog Millionaire) tailor their narrative around Jobs backstage before three of his famously hyped product launches, each emblematic of his personal and professional arc. The prelude to his debut of the ill-fated Macintosh computer in 1984 introduces a cocksure but demanding Jobs, who attracts admirers for his product and marketing savvy while ostracizing those same disciples with pettiness and intransigence.
Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), Jobs’ longtime confidant, both suffers and attempts to mollify his personality foibles. Jobs holds a decade-long grudge against Time magazine for naming the computer, not him, its “Man of the Year” in 1982. He threatens to publicly belittle engineer Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg), a member of the original Mac team whose only crime is trying to please his boss. Jobs stubbornly rebuffs the vain, almost comical refrain of Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen) to merely “acknowledge the Apple II guys” during any one of Jobs’ product launches.
The shared narrative thread running through each act is Jobs’ relationship with his daughter, Lisa (portrayed at different ages by three actresses). His cruel denial of paternity in 1984, despite a blood test and court order, softens by 1988, though his relationship with Lisa’s mother, Chrisann (Katherine Waterston), remains caustic. Set in the San Francisco Opera House around the launch of the equally doomed NeXT computer, Act 2 finds a slightly chastened Jobs coping with his ouster from Apple at the behest of its CEO, John Sculley (Jeff Daniels). A hallway face-off between Jobs and Sculley, crosscut with flashbacks to Jobs’ stormy firing and Pemberton’s soaring score, is an exquisite sequence I could watch on a loop ad infinitum.
By 1998, a vindicated Jobs has replaced Sculley as Apple CEO and rescued the company from near-bankruptcy. Clad in his trademark black turtleneck and blue jeans, Jobs prepares to introduce the iMac, with passing allusions to the iPod, iPhone and iTunes forecasting his industry dominance. At the same time, he finally faces Wozniak and Hertzfeld’s hurt, rues the lost greatness he and Sculley could have had and hears Hoffman’s exasperation over Jobs’ treatment of a now-teenage Lisa (Perla Haney-Jardine). The peace Jobs and Lisa reach is an uneasy one, forged mainly by him prioritizing her over business, if only for a few minutes. When Jobs promises to one day put a thousand songs in Lisa’s pocket, it resonates with the charm and whimsy of a ditty.
Jobs made (or at least, marketed) the trees, and this film’s small fault is that it can’t see the forest for them. The film never cracks Jobs’ veneer to dissect the origins of his genius or madness—a few fleeting references in Act 3 to his adopted childhood are the closest it comes. But Jobs was always more attuned to the sizzle than the steak, and Sorkin and Boyle’s aim is illuminating an enigma, not solving it.
Steve Jobs doesn’t comprehend Steve Jobs—maybe no one ever did. But through a stylized marriage of writing, directing and Fassbender’s terrific acting, we feel like we know the man who put a thousand songs in our pocket.