‘Steve Jobs’ Tallies the Cost of Genius

Michael Fassbender as Steve Jobs.
Michael Fassbender as Steve Jobs.

By Susan JAMES

Director Danny Boyle’s new film “Steve Jobs” is a surprisingly engrossing plunge into the chaotic world of a man who created the future but was unable to deal with the present. The larger-than-life career of computer visionary Steve Jobs (Michael Fassbender) is one of dysfunctional relationships that lasted decades, taking a terrible toll on those involved. Working from a challenging and cerebral script by Aaron Sorkin, Boyle has crafted a riveting contemplation on the personal cost of genius.

The movie smash cuts us into the middle of Jobs’ life in 1984 when he is about to launch the revolutionary Macintosh personal computer. As he agonizes backstage over programming the computer to speak to an overflow audience, the most important people in his life spin around him like satellites, each held in orbit by his extraordinary vision but each dealing with wounds inflicted by his incredibly callous personality. Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), Jobs’ long-time development partner, Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg), core member of the Apple/Macintosh development team, and Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), head of Jobs’ international marketing team, all have long-term relationships with Jobs as well as an understanding of the difficulties involved dealing with him. John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), CEO of Apple, is a father figure to Jobs but their relationship turns out to be more “Oedipus Rex” than “Father Knows Best.”

The film moves between the three most significant product launches in Jobs’ career: the 1984 launch of Macintosh, the 1988 launch of his new computer system NeXT, and the 1998 launch of the iMac. In between these events, computers and people undergo major changes with the story working simultaneously at multiple levels. Within one man’s meditation on his past is a tale of corporate greed and betrayal wrapped around the development of technology so advanced it created a second very American industrial revolution. But the key relationship that defines Jobs’ personal growth is that with his daughter, Lisa (played as an adult by Perla Haney-Jardine). Jobs’ early repudiation of his child, his unwillingness to publicly acknowledge paternity and his abusive treatment of her mother Chrisann (Katherine Waterston) sets the tone of a man so driven by demons that human interaction is all but impossible. As the growth of his electronic child, the iMac, unfolds so does his acceptance of his biological child. It is this difficult and rocky relationship that keeps the story moving forward and gives the machine – and the movie – its heart.

Michael Fassbender as Jobs is spellbinding, turning an unlikeable man with an unstoppable vision into a riveting character whose ideas expand like a force of nature. As the only team member able to get through to Jobs on a human level, Kate Winslet as Joanna, with her flexibility, range and carefully nuanced Polish accent, continues along the path of Meryl Streep toward illustrious career longevity. Every player in the film makes the most of his or her opportunities and creates indelible moments struck off Fassbender’s soaring performance.

There may be a quibble here and there – like Jobs suddenly warming to the 5-year-old Lisa when he discovers she can use a computer – but they are small. One tip: if you don’t know Jobs’ life, read the Wikipedia page before you go. Trust me, it will be worth the three-minute investment.

See you at the movies!