Does a biopic need to be truthful?
A biopic about a computer genius doesn’t sound like the recipe for a spellbinding classic. But when you have Aaron Sorkin writing the screenplay (based on the book by Walter Isaacson), Danny Boyle directing, and actors like Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Seth Rogan, and Jeff Daniels at the top of their game, a masterpiece is apparently achievable.
It is a stroke of genius on Sorkin’s part to write the story of Jobs in three isolated acts. With Sorkin’s gift for brilliant dialogue writing, it’s like watching a great play.
Fassbender plays the man behind the MacBook Pro I am currently using to write this review. Seth Rogan plays Steve Wozniack, Jobs’s friend and collaborator who created the first Apple computers and changed the future of computing. Michael Stuhlbarg plays Andy Hertzfeld, another computer developer who worked for Apple. Kate Winslet is Joanna Hoffman, Jobs’s long-suffering marketing chief. Jeff Daniels is John Scully, the first CEO of Apple. And Katherine Waterston is Chrisann Brennan, whose role is primarily that of the mother of Jobs’s daughter Lisa (played by three actors).
The unique and fascinating structure of Steve Jobs creates opportunities for each of the characters mentioned above to interact with Jobs at three critical moments of his life, specifically at product launches in 1984, 1988, and 1998. In each of the film’s three acts, Jobs is confronted by the people closest to him, with Hoffman as the central figure trying to help the cold, demanding, and often unreasonable Jobs do the right thing and become a better person.
The unusual structure of Steve Jobs (three acts playing virtually in real time during the minutes before each of those product launches) makes it impossible to view the film as a traditional biopic and also impossible to view the film as a true story (though clearly it is based on one). But it is a stroke of genius on Sorkin’s part to write the story of Jobs in three isolated acts. With Sorkin’s gift for brilliant dialogue writing, it’s like watching a great play. But this play also features fantastic camera movement and a wonderful score, with each act represented by its own styles of cinematography and music. The result is a breathtaking achievement in biographical filmmaking.
For my part, I was riveted from the opening scene of Steve Jobs, though the fast-paced dialogue and camera movement can feel overwhelming at times. This is especially noticeable during the flashback scenes that allow us to catch glimpses of Jobs’s life prior to 1984 and of things that happen between the product launches. The flashback dialogues are carefully interwoven into the “present-day” dialogues, with one or two lines of flashback dialogue followed by a couple of lines of present-day dialogue, and so on. It isn’t always easy to follow what’s happening in these scenes, but I loved every second of them.
Steve Jobs may not be an accurate or plausible biography of Steve Jobs, but if we set aside any need for accuracy or plausibility, the film works beautifully even as a fictional account of a genius obsessed with his vision for the future who begins to realize only too late what he has missed along the way (despite the foreshadowing provided by the young Lisa), especially in his relationship with his daughter. In many ways, the relationship between Jobs and Lisa forms the heart of the film. As presented, the story of this relationship’s development is no doubt entirely unrealistic, but the story worked for me.
The acting in Steve Jobs is phenomenal. Fassbender, one of the best out there, conveys with his eyes every emotion Jobs is experiencing, and I’m expecting an Oscar nomination. Daniels is much better here than he was in The Martian; Stuhlbarg (who recently had a very different role in Pawn Sacrifice) continues to impress me; Rogen is perfectly cast and has never been better; and the almost unrecognizable Winslet is amazing.
Does the film tack on an implausible Hollywood ending? Sure. Does it provide us with an intimate portrayal of the real Steve Jobs? Not a chance. Do those facts matter? That question leads to another: Does a humanizing and inspiring story of a real person need to be generally truthful in its biographical details in order to have any real power? Some say that fiction only works when it is fiction, not when it’s pretending to be factual about known people. But I wonder whether it can actually be more effective (in terms of helping each of us to become a better person) to create an entertaining and inspiring film that treats its truth loosely than to create one that sticks to the truth but fails to entertain and inspire. The Bible, for example, contains many inspiring but embellished stories about known people.
So I am inclined to forgive Steve Jobs for its embellishments and state that this film will find a place in my top five films of 2015. Thanks to the presence of the inimitable Aaron Sorkin, Hollywood is still capable of making great films.
Steve Jobs is rated R for language.