'Steve Jobs' review: Unconventional, entertaining, but incomplete

The new film is a riveting look at the icon, but its narrow scope omits much of his personal and professional growth.

If you know enough about Steve Jobs, watching the new biopic Steve Jobs without bias is almost impossible. You can’t help think about Apple event keynotes, anecdotes from books about the late Apple CEO, the devices you use or have used that were guided by his vision.

But try to leave all of that aside and appreciate Steve Jobs for what it is: entertainment. That’s where the movie succeeds, even as facts are fudged.

Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (of The Social Network fame) constructed Steve Jobs around three major product launches: the Macintosh in 1984, the 1988 introduction of NeXT’s computer, and Jobs’s triumphant return to Apple with the iMac in 1998. Those three acts take place over 15 years of personal and professional strife in Jobs’s life, and that limited timeline by nature omits the growth he experienced both as a leader and as a person. This is a movie about Steve Jobs that doesn’t include the launch of the iPhone, what some might consider his greatest achievement, or even a mention of his wife, Laurene Powell Jobs, and their three children together.

Instead, the movie is centered around Jobs’s redemption, both as a CEO and as a parent. Long-time Apple watchers are familiar with the story: In 1978, Jobs had a daughter, Lisa Brennan-Jobs, with high school girlfriend Chrisann Brennan, but denied that he was the father throughout Lisa’s childhood, despite naming a computer after her. It was a decision he came to regret, and he eventually repaired his relationship with Brennan-Jobs. Aaron Sorkin made Lisa, in his words, the “heroine” of his version of Jobs’s life: She is his moral compass, even when he denies to himself and the world that she is his child.

steve jobs lisa Universal Studios

The heart of the film is Lisa Brennan-Jobs, played as a 5-year-old by Makenzie Moss.

The positioning of Lisa Brennan-Jobs as the heart of the film and the use of three product launches to narrate Jobs’s growth succeed as storytelling devices. The film takes place largely off-stage, behind the scenes of those major events, and is told in a series of fraught conversations between Jobs and those close to him: his daughter, his ex-girlfriend, Steve Wozniak, former Apple CEO John Sculley, Macintosh developer Andy Hertzfeld, and the film’s voice of reason, Apple marketing executive Joanna Hoffman (played by Kate Winslet). Hoffman’s relationship with Jobs was probably nowhere near as intimate as depicted in the film (she is never described as his “work wife” anywhere but this script, for instance), but no matter: Their banter humanizes Jobs, and you want to see more of her.

The dialogue-driven scenes between Jobs and the rest of the stellar cast—including Jeff Daniels as Sculley and Seth Rogen as Woz—are signature Sorkin. Here they call to mind Birdman, where the real action happens behind the scenes. There are a few tense flashbacks, like the scene where Jobs is ousted from Apple in a board vote, and those serve to break up all the walking and talking, which can get a little stale.

Michael Fassbender could have been the film’s greatest weakness, because he looks nothing like Jobs. But Fassbender manages to evoke Jobs without impersonating him. In later scenes, dressed in jeans, a black turtleneck, and white New Balance sneakers, bedecked in rimless glasses, Fassbender is almost there. But the lack of physical similarity isn’t a huge hurdle to overcome: He captures Jobs’s laser focus on detail, his passionate outbursts, and some of his wry humor.

steve jobs joanna hoffman Universal Studios

Kate Winslet is Joanna Hoffman, the voice of reason challenging Jobs's "reality distortion field."

Those close to Jobs feared this movie, based on Walter Isaacson’s authorized biography of the late CEO, would paint Jobs as a cruel perfectionist. Those fears aren’t completely unfounded. This version of Jobs says mean things, many of which are lines quoted verbatim from Isaacson’s book. He’s vicious to ex-girlfriend Chrisann Brennan, who also figures prominently in the film. Like the book it was based on, Steve Jobs doesn’t attempt to excuse that behavior, though it does attempt to explain it.

People familiar with Apple will grit their teeth at some of the facts the movie gets wrong for the sake of drama. One scene in particular, where it becomes clear that Jobs had no intention of building an operating system for NeXT and built that company solely to be acquired in an elaborate plot to take over Apple, is noteworthy in how far it strays from reality. (Though the fact that this Macworld article from Guy Kawasaki is a catalyst for that scene is pretty hilarious.)

As everyone knows, Jobs redeems himself as the leader of Apple, though the film ends in 1998, before the company is anywhere near the heights it would reach in the 21st century. He comes close to redeeming himself as a human being, telling Lisa, “I’m poorly made.” It’s not an apology, really, but what else would you expect from Steve Jobs?

Steve Jobs is now playing in New York City and Los Angeles, and opens nationwide on Oct. 23.

This story, "'Steve Jobs' review: Unconventional, entertaining, but incomplete" was originally published by Macworld.

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