With ‘Steve Jobs,’ truths about the Apple co-founder, in three installments

Michael Fassbender attends the New York Film Festival gala presentation of "Steve Jobs" at Alice Tully Hall in New York.

Michael Fassbender attends the New York Film Festival gala presentation of “Steve Jobs” at Alice Tully Hall in New York.

(Charles Sykes / Invision/Associated Press)

There are moments early in the Danny Boyle-directed “Steve Jobs” when filmgoers might have to remind themselves that the man on screen is in fact the complicated Apple co-founder.

As played by the Irish-German star Michael Fassbender, after all, Jobs can seem far away from the persona widely known in popular culture. “Obviously,” said Fassbender, “I don’t look anything like Steve Jobs.”

The actor was talking to reporters shortly before his movie world-premiered at the New York Film Festival on Saturday night, and as he spoke he recounted his own reconciliation to the idea. “The first thing I said to Danny is ‘Christian Bale looks a lot more like Steve Jobs than me,’” Fassbender said, alluding to the “Dark Knight” star’s earlier attachment. “And he was like ‘I’m not interested in that. I just want to get the energy and essence of the man.’


Those spiritual truths are indeed at the heart of “Steve Jobs,”‎ which in telling a story of the well-known pioneer concerns itself with weighty themes like the nature of ambition and the prickly relationship between genius and generosity.‎

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Written by Aaron Sorkin from Walter Isaacson’s bestselling biography, ‎the film is a kind of Shakesperean chamber piece set across three moments in the title character’s life, prior to presentations for product launches in the 1980s and 1990s.‎ “Jobs” manages to‎ touch on many of the key life events and contradictions of the tech pioneer -- the boardroom drama with former CEO John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), his fraught relationship with the likes of co-founder Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen) and scientist Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg) and attempts to market new Macs all commingle with personal issues like his relationship with daughter Lisa and his own adoption -- while rarely straying from this backstage timeline.

“That conventional cradle-to-grave structure where you land on all the greatest hits is a structure that’s familiar to audiences, and I didn’t think I could add much to that‎,” Sorkin, who imagined much of the dialogue between the characters instead of working off transcripts or quotes, told reporters. “I wondered [instead] if I could take all the work Walter had done...if there was a way to take the points of friction in Steve’s life and dramatize them in real time.”

He added, “‎I like claustrophobic spaces. I like compressed periods of time where there’s a ticking clock.” (The fact that the story of Jobs himself, unlike the subject of many biographical films, is so well-known has a curious effect, both allowing the film to shorthand the big moments and also requiring it to reference them.)

‎The movie will inevitably be compared to Sorkin’s recent work, including the similar under-deadline, backstage personality clashes of his HBO show “The Newsroom” and, of course, the tortured tech genius of his 2010 best picture-nominated “The Social Network.” Sorkin is Sorkin for a reason—his “Sorkinese‎,” as Kate Winslet, who plays longtime Jobs deputy Joanna Hoffman, put it at the press conference--and that will have audiences responding in kind. (There are, to take two examples of such motormouth scenes, the moment in which Sculley and Jobs square off after Jobs has been ejected from Apple, and the time Wozniak suggests to Jobs that the latter’s idea of an operating system “incompatible” with all others is a reflection‎ of his own social flaws.)


Those strong audience reactions could especially be in evidence when it comes to a sentiment-tinged third act, one that was very satisfying to this viewer ‎but, if the discussion at the after-party was any indication, could continue dividing audiences for a long time to come.

The film displays the charge that Jobs was a marketing guru far better at putting a shine on his own products and reputation than he was at building something tangible in the first place. It also foregrounds the question of whether greatness and righteousness can co-exist —whether one can be “decent and gifted,”—as Wozniak challenges Jobs in the film—and the movie will occasion, in its own way, a kind of second-look debate over Jobs along the lines of Alex Gibney’s recent documentary “Steve Jobs: The Man In the Machine.”

Indeed, Jobs’ overall harshness is perhaps the aspect that audiences will leave theaters most talking about when the movie opens commercially Friday—there are a number of moments so brusque they can almost physically take you aback. (Fassbender, for his part, says he scrutinized nuances of speeches and YouTube videos to capture Jobs’ manner. “And I studied Ashton Kutcher,” he quipped, referencing an earlier big-screen Jobs.)

Also ‎on filmgoers’ minds will be the movie’s structure. It’s testament to Boyle’s characteristically energized direction--quick cuts and stylistic ambition and everything else that made earlier movies about stranded hikers and dissolute addicts so kinetic--that “Jobs” feels as big and open as it does.

Boyle said he took pains to make each period—across about 15 years beginning in 1984—appear discrete, using various techniques‎ to enhance the feeling of time’s passage.

“We used three different [camera] formats...three different scores, three different [sets of] costumes”-- all with, as he puts it a “subterranean river of intention” running through them.


Still, as the film prepares to open, the question remains how much audiences--and, at some point, Oscar voters--will be drawn to a backstage dramatization of a story that is, at least in its cursory ways, familiar to many.

There are also some holograms lingering over this movie, other versions that viewers will be keenly aware of. “Jobs” was drawn into the Sony hacking scandal in December (that which grew out of the studio’s release of Rogen’s “The Interview”) as emails between producer Scott Rudin and the project’s then-home Sony were made public, throwing an unusually bright light on the behind-the-scenes jockeying over the movie. (David Fincher was on board to direct at a much earlier point, while more recently, Leonardo DiCaprio and then Bale were in play for the lead role. There were those arguing for and against Fassbender, and the film’s reception will be a referendum of sorts on the Hollywood figures who staked out various positions on it, as you can catch up on here.)

Ever the playful sort, Boyle alluded to the hacking scandal’s strange connection to the movie several times before the premiere screening, telling the gala audience that the cast was so deep the audience will soon “feel like the North Korean parliament” because of all the clapping, and then introducing Rogen as someone who “almost br[ought] a studio to its knees.”

He also elucidated a larger point about the importance of new ways of thinking. Citing Albert Einstein, he said, “Facts get you from A to B. Imagination gets you everywhere else.” It’s a point that could be applied to Jobs, and to “Jobs.”