By now it’s no secret that Steve Jobs was a controlling, egomaniacal bully. Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs presupposes that, maybe, he wasn’t all that bad. As if testing the mettle of its rendition of the late Apple co-founder, to say nothing of audience endurance, Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay is broken into three disparate chunks, each played in something approximating real time. Michael Fassbender stars as the Mephistophelean Jobs, seen exclusively in the minutes ticking down to one of his signature keynote speech-cum-product launches—the first Macintosh in 1984, the neXT “black cube” in 1988, and finally, the desktop iMac in 1998—with frisky expository montages filling in the peaks and dips of his storied career between acts. But despite this intriguing structure and the vigor of its execution, Boyle’s film can’t help but land in the same hagiographizing place as nearly every single other Great Man biopic churned out by the studio powers that be.
Johanna Hoffmann (Kate Winslet) is Jobs’s handler, unofficial shrink, and “work wife,” walking him through each of the three long mornings leading up to the respective launches, clipboard in hand. Each event is preempted by a litany of technical troubleshoots and confrontational “sessions” between Jobs, once-and-former Apple CEO John Scully (Jeff Daniels), and long-suffering developers Andy Hertzfeldt (Michael Stuhlbarg) and Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen). Across the three chronologies, no through line is as dramatically pressing as Jobs’s pathological unwillingness to acknowledge his out-of-wedlock daughter, Lisa, and pay child support to his ex-girlfriend, Chrisann (Katherine Waterston).
True to Sorkin’s form, the majority of these hashings-out take place during peripatetic walk and talks, with each member of the film’s Greek chorus lodging both zingers and accusations at Jobs in equal, dogged proportion. As Boyle barely leaves time for the dust from these interpersonal clashes to settle, no viewer could be blamed for assuming Jobs’s naysayers—each, in their own way, having been demonstrably steamrolled by the tech guru—will vanish from the remainder of the film. Just as Jobs endures, so do they—all, exempting Chrisann, looping back around for another featured turn in each act, and with added life wisdom, to grapple one last time with their once and future, and legendarily dickheaded, boss.
The screenwriter’s signature verbal-diarrhetic dialogue allows for a nonstop blaring of actorly chops that, like the movie at large, is nothing if not committed. It’s incumbent on Boyle’s cast to suggest a realistic “corporate culture” at Apple outside the film’s confined set pieces, and for the most part they succeed wildly: As Hoffmann, Winslet is particularly adroit at summarizing two decades spent under Jobs’s thumb without her tics feeling atemporal. Playing Jobs as a tortured genius trapped under the burden of a Gatsby-esque public persona, Fassbender would have us believe the tech guru lived every minute of his life in full-blown visionary-entrepreneur mode, his veins practically varicose with self-bedazzlement. But the actor’s technical prowess gives Jobs’s nasally lilt and pleading appeal a double-sided edge, making both the good and bad Jobses sufficiently plausible.
Steve Jobs’s triparite structure is probably as audacious a choice a Hollywood studio can make: the minute-to-minute claustrophobia of the launches means the acting (and the beyond-prolix script) are thrown under an unforgiving degree of scrutiny. But if the begraddled present tense of the three acts makes for a superficially exhilarating movie-going experience, Sorkin’s text betrays the hoariness of its motivating Big Concept early and often. Jobs’s on-screen relationship with Scully is essentially one protracted heart to heart that exists principally to unmask the titular antihero’s daddy issues before it’s too late. Jobs finally figures out how to redeem his deadbeat-dad self in perfect sync with the scoring his last (and greatest) Apple coup, wherein Hoffmann has cause to tell him iMac sales are projected to break a million in their first week. (For whatever reason, this histrionic, win-big-or-bust quality permeates nearly every film with Boyle’s name on it.)
This process means inevitably realizing there’s no way Steve Jobs can’t culminate in a treatise on why America (allegedly) adores Steve Jobs. Hurdling toward its conclusion, Boyle’s film takes pains to solidify its antihero’s image in its most enduring—one could even say streamlined—form: emaciated, adorned in his signature black turtleneck, spotless sneakers, and rimless granny glasses. On a sun-kissed Cupertino rooftop parking lot, with milliseconds between him and the iMac unveiling, Jobs’s mad rush to finally take responsibility for himself allows for the teasing of a yet-unseen new product: The now-teenage Lisa (played here by Perla Haney-Jardine) is more than jaded to her father’s overpromising, until he begins bellowing to her that he’ll find a way to “put five hundred or a thousand songs in your pocket.” Even by its surprisingly upbeat denouement, it’s way too late to ask if Steve Jobs is a full-bore promotion of Apple’s corporate philosophy: In 2015, no utterance of Jobs’s name in public can be mistaken for anything else.