Fassbender Flies In Remarkable "Steve Jobs"

Merriam-Webster’s Medical Dictionary defines megalomania as “a delusional mental disorder that is marked by feelings of personal omnipotence and grandeur.” Late Apple co-founder and CEO Steve Jobs might have defined it as a weapon.

But Jobs’ condition was a unique one, a head full of grandiose delusions that would eventually melt away into plain old grandiosity, spearheading a sea change in personal computing – or more broadly, life as we know it.

“Steve Jobs” – the second feature to bear the visionary’s name since his passing in 2011 – puts the man’s affliction front and center far more successfully than 2013’s disappointing “Jobs,” and likely better than any movie ever will. It’s a smart picture for smart people about a smart (but troubled) man whose name will forever adorn the microcomputer revolution.

And fittingly, it does so by following in its subject’s footsteps – thinking big by thinking small.

The surprisingly intimate film is the first (hopefully not last) union between flashy “Slumdog Millionaire” director Danny Boyle and even flashier “The Social Network” scribe Aaron Sorkin. The duo’s combined gaudiness necessitates that one defer (Boyle does so graciously; he goes without regular cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle here) and the result is one of the greatest movies to almost never happen at all.

“Gone Girl” director David Fincher and star Christian Bale bolted the project just months before it was set to film, with Sony pulling the plug shortly thereafter. But Sorkin scripts don’t tend to languish, and Universal snapped it up out of turnaround.

Above all else, “Steve Jobs” is a love letter to the three-act structure. Sorkin’s screenplay (emphasis on play) is clearly delineated into three sections, each depicting the hours before three big product launches: the original Macintosh in 1984, the NeXT Computer in 1988, and the iMac in 1998. In bringing the same group of characters into and out of Jobs’ orbit at three distinct periods in time, Sorkin may have found the long-lost meaning of the term “Dickensian.” It’s beautiful and eerie and the kind of connective tissue most films would kill for.

Irish actor Michael Fassbender (“Prometheus”) isn’t exactly Steve Jobs’ doppelganger, but no matter. He manages to make the man his own while delivering dialogue about what it is, exactly, that makes a man. It’s a paradoxical performance that’s one of the great acting feats since Joaquin Phoenix’s era-defining turn in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master,” as synthesized and as streamlined as the products Job is hawking, but a bubbling roil of insecurity just beneath. Fassbender is indispensable here, lifted even further by an exceptional supporting cast.

Kate Winslet gets second billing as Joanna Hoffman, Jobs’ longtime assistant, while Seth Rogen turns up as Steve Wozniak, tech wiz and other Apple co-founder. Neither one is nearly as engaging as Fassbender, but they don’t have to be. They mostly serve to paw at Jobs, shepherding him around from green room to hallway to elevator to waiting area, so he can bloviate with Apple head honcho John Sculley (Jeff Daniels) or deny to his ex (Katherine Waterston) that he’s the father of their child or to coldly ridicule one of his underlings (Michael Stuhlbarg, reminding us that he should be in every movie).

This is not to understate the importance of the supporting players, only to underline that their characters are all there at the behest of Steve Jobs, genius. And he lets them know it, time and again.

But the guts of the movie are Jobs and his daughter, Lisa (played terrifically by three tremendous young actresses). When Wozniak sternly tells Jobs, “Computers aren’t supposed to have human flaws – I’m not going to build this one with yours,” it takes us nearly an hour to realize the happy tragedy that the same logic doesn’t apply to Lisa. At 5, she’s a lost little girl, but at 9, we see her becoming her father. By 19, she’s the only person in the world able to elicit a semblance of humility from him, let alone actual human emotion.

Jobs’ late game admission to his own design flaws is the perfect endgame to all of Sorkin’s verbal acrobatics, impossibly making a largely feel-bad movie feel genuinely good. Sorkin’s words combined with Fassbender’s performance (and Boyle’s largely understated direction) makes for the most layered film character of the entire year – quite a feat considering that Jobs brings so much viewer baggage to the table.

The movie isn’t without bugs – it fudges lots and lots of facts and doesn’t lend itself to repeat viewings – but with a seminal lead performance, pools of delectable dialogue, and some editing for the ages (the second act confrontation between Jobs and Sculley is breathtaking), “Steve Jobs” is a must for cinephiles.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Excellent)

Release Date: October 9, 2015 (Limited)
Studio: Universal Pictures
Director: Danny Boyle
Screenwriter: Aaron Sorkin
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Seth Rogen, Jeff Daniels, Katherine Waterston, Michael Stuhlbarg
MPAA Rating: R (for language)