Telluride 2015 Review: ‘Steve Jobs’ Is Incredible

Steve Jobs is another crackling Aaron Sorkin script, complete with walk and talks.  Instead of applying this banter to a linear series of events (or a direct adaptation of the Walter Isaacson biography), Sorkin structured the film in three major sequences that encapsulate the entirety of the man. It’s extraordinary, and Danny Boyle directs the hell out of it too. 

The first sequence is the 1984 launch event for the Macintosh computer. Next is the 1988 launch of the NEXT cube. Third is the 1998 launch of the the iMac. At each event, all the significant parties in Steve Jobs (Michael Fassbender)’s life appear with needs and wants, touching on all the major issues of his life. It includes Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), his ex Chrisann (Katherine Waterston) and daughter Lisa (Makenzie Moss, then Perla Haney-Jardine), and former Apple CEO John Scully (Jeff Daniels), while head of marketing Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet) manages Steve and the event. There are brief flashbacks to the garage days where Steve and Woz invented the Apple II. 

The three segments also represent three iterations of Steve Jobs: cocky Steve, smug Steve and cool Steve, in that order. Even cool Steve still has an edge, but I’m trying to articulate the subtleties of each sequence. The 1988 sequence is a bit mellower and the ’98 sequence is the most open we’ve seen Steve, but also when others are the most confident to challenge him. In between each is a catch-up montage. In between ’84 and ’88 is mostly auditory soundbites about the failure of Mac. The second montage is way better because it draws on so much more pop culture video, including a Simpsons spoof and a talk show appearance by the real Steve Jobs. In those 10 years, Apple products had infiltrated culture for better or worse, and here’s visual proof. 

The sequences are so packed with activity and banter, they’re a bit like Noises Off and definitely theatrical in spirit. In Noises Off, everything happened to every character on show night. The Isaacson biography was chronological and there’s no way all of these things happened at each significant event, and we can be damn sure nobody was as articulate as Sorkin. That’s why Steve Jobs is a more impressionistic approach to encapsulating a life. Let’s enjoy the most idealized artistry of how it could’ve gone down. Wouldn’t it be nice if everyone always had a perfectly articulate answer in every stressful confrontation?

There’s not much tech talk. We occasionally hear about megahertz and closed ended systems, but it’s usually at points in dialogue when the context is clear. By the end of the film, Sorkin may have run out of clever ways to have characters articulate what a bad father Jobs was to Lisa. That’s actually Steve’s fault. If he’d been around more, a screenwriter wouldn’t have to spread his references so thin. There’s also a Beatles reference and some spelling out of themes that were jarring, but that’s three lines in a 200 page script (per Boyle’s pre-screening interview). I’ll take it. There is a very clever meta acknowledgment of how each launch event followed a similar pattern, so these filmmakers, and even the characters know what they’re doing. 

That’s 500 words on the screenplay so far. I’m a writer admiring writing. Boyle stages these sequences in kinetic motion and uses significant props to great effect. For example, a stack of boxes of Time Magazine issues featuring a computing article that’s unflattering to Jobs is a major dialogue set piece. Then when it reappears it says everything without any words spoken. Boyle’s artistic flourishes are palpable, whether printing Bob Dylan lyrics on the screen or projecting NASA footage behind and in front of Fassbender and Winslet. It’s always in service of the scene and the dialogue, and again those montages are great. Music builds with the simmering conflicts nicely.

I’ve raved about the writing and directing so it’s only fair I single out the actors too. They all perform the dialogue as if it’s naturally in their heads, but selling the emotion. The punchy wit would mean nothing without it. Rogen might have the most startling transformation, embodying Wozniak’s speech patterns with none of the distinct Seth Rogenisms. Another standout is Michael Stuhlbarg as long suffering programmer Andy Hertzfield. 

Steve Jobs is not the first and probably won’t be the last film about this innovator. The subtext of his story is that the innovations we enjoy came at an enormous human cost to a select few individuals who depended on him. That’s the sort of drama that will provide endless opportunities for dramatists to explore. For now, the Aaron Sorkin/Danny Boyle version is an exhilarating thrill. 

Image via Universal Pictures

Fred Topel is a veteran journalist since 1999 and has written for CraveOnline since 2006. See Fred on the ground at Sundance, SXSW, Telluride or in Los Angeles and follow him on Twitter @FredTopel, Instagram @Ftopel.