Review: Aaron Sorkin dominates the ambitious three-act drama that is ‘Steve Jobs’

TELLURIDE – Steve Jobs became one of the most iconic men of the millennium.  He was a phoenix like figure that brought the company he founded back from the brink and transformed it into the most valuable corporation in the world.  Jobs was also a difficult man to work with who many people admired and just as many considered an a-hole.  Almost four years after his passing, director Danny Boyle and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin have collaborated on “Steve Jobs,” an ambitious new drama that culls material from Walter Isaacson”s best-selling biography of the legendary Apple CEO.

The movie takes place during three different product launches that also happened to be signature moments in Jobs” life.  The first act occurs before the launch of the Macintosh computer in 1984. The second act takes place in 1988 before Jobs” introduces his NEXT computer, years after his dismissal from Apple.  The final act occurs in 1998 with Jobs' euphoric return to the company and the debut of the iMac only minutes away.   Sorkin structures the screenplay so each act occurs during the 40 minutes before Jobs has to walk on stage for his presentations.  During each act he (Michael Fassbender) connects with the same six key people in his life: Apple Marketing head Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), original Mac developer Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg), one-time Apple CEO John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), the mother of his daughter Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston) and his daughter, Lisa (played from 5 to 19-years-old by Makenzie Moss, Ripley Sobo and Perla Haney-Jardine).   

Anyone with a general history of Apple can tell you much of this simply wasn”t historically possible. For example, Hoffman had already retired by the time the iMac was revealed and there is no evidence his daughter was at every product launch.  That probably doesn”t matter much to the filmmakers because “Steve Jobs” is not meant to realistically chronicle what happened at each publicity event. Instead, it wants explore his relationships with each of these key figures in his life at these distinct moments.  What did they mean to him?  How did they help him grow?  How did he react when they threw his flaws in his face?  Think of it as a three-act play where Jobs is constantly reengaging with his biggest nightmares in a non-stop conversation only Aaron Sorkin can deliver.  And, without a doubt, Sorkin is the key creative figure in this endeavor for better and for worse.

No disrespect, but at this point it goes without saying that Aaron Sorkin is simply an acquired taste.  It”s hard to imagine a screenwriter in 2015 outside of Quentin Tarantino and Woody Allen whose style is so instantly recognizable.  For Sorkin most of that notoriety comes from creating the classic TV series “The West Wing” or, more recently, the polarizing “The Newsroom.”  He”s also, however, an Oscar winner for “The Social Network” and written acclaimed scripts for “A Few Good Men,” “The American President” and “Moneyball.”  Sorkin specializes in an almost incessant intellectualized banter. It's entertaining dialogue that can feel incredibly authentic one moment and arduously theatrical the next.  

When Sorkin collaborated with David Fincher on “Social Network” the final product teased his signature writing style, but overall the film felt much more complementary to the director”s vision.  That is not the case with “Jobs.”  Boyle”s imaginative touches are sporadically here and there, but this movie is so much more about Sorkin's style that it becomes slightly unnerving considering the director”s previous accomplishments.

Consider if you will a scene in the second act where Jobs and Sculley verbally tussle over the former”s departure as Apple CEO a few years earlier.  Not only does the conversation intensify to a fever pitch, but Boyle and editor Elliot Graham”s decision to cut back and forth between both men (as opposed to letting it play out within the same shot) creates a sequence so intense you almost want to turn away from it.  The aversion partially comes from the editing and mostly from the relentlessness of Sorkin”s discourse.

Boyle also has the camera follow Jobs throughout much of the first two acts and at times the result is eerily similar to last year”s pseudo one take marvel “Birdman.”  This doesn”t feel like the choices of the man who brought us “127 Hours” or “Trainspotting.”  Instead he”s a director dipping his toe into other styles in an attempt to make a self-contained story feel as cinematic as possible.  The story is so enclosed that when Jobs takes a different colleague for a walk outside during each act the film immediately lightens up.

There are some other rare moments where Boyle”s creativity takes over.  At one point Jobs uses an analogy about the NASA space station Skylab when trying to explain his actions to Hoffman.  Boyle stages this scene in a long white hall and as Jobs tells the story he has the camera slowly dolly back while he simultaneously projects vintage footage of the doomed space station on the wall.  It”s a much-needed break from the monotony of dialogue, but Boyle strangely doesn”t reprise it anywhere else.

Things get slightly easier in the third act as much of the action takes place in a large auditorium and that allows cinematographer Alwin Küchler the most spatial freedom he”s had in the film up to that point.  Still, much of the first act in particular simply feels too claustrophobic and ready for the stage.  Thankfully, the cast is up to the task and often carry the picture on their backs.

Makeup and hair attempts aside, Fassbender doesn”t look or sound very much like Jobs, but considering he”s clearly playing an imagined version of the Apple founder that”s OK.  Where the 38-year-old actor excels is in eventually prompting sympathy for an obviously stubborn egomaniac.  This may not have been how the real Jobs acted in 1998, but Fassbender finds a way to make it feel credible.

Beyond Fassbender”s impressive performance the movie is assisted by a universally brilliant supporting cast.  Winslet gives one of the best performances of her career providing Hoffman with a gravitas that isn”t always in the script.  Rogen does more for Wozniak”s legacy with his performance in this one film than any of the computer pioneer”s recent public interviews ever have.  Daniels makes you root for Sculley even though he”s supposedly to blame for the dismal Apple Newton (it should be noted the movie depicts Sculley”s run as CEO as a complete disaster which simply isn”t the case).   Stuhlbarg is absolutely fantastic as the one Apple employee Jobs has hurt the most, but who continues to look out for him.  Waterston beautifully conveys the humiliation Chrisann feels after Jobs insists Lisa isn”t his daughter in TIME magazine of all places.

With about 10 minutes left in the picture, Boyle finally seems to be able to free himself from the stylistic shackles of Sorkin”s screenplay.  There is an important scene on a rooftop that plays out with a patience missing earlier in the picture and the final sequence in the movie is pure Boyle.  That being said, Sorkin”s voice dominates the discourse and the film rarely has a chance to catch its collective breath.  While you have to give the duo credit for attempting an unconventional structure, it”s a choice that arguably only works thanks to the contributions of a stellar ensemble.  And, frankly, that's not where most would expect a Boyle and Sorkin collaboration to land.

“Steve Jobs” screened as a “work in progress” world premiere at the 2015 Telluride Film Festival.  It opens nationwide on Oct. 9.