If any genre has a stranglehold on being Oscar bait, it’s the biopic. The Academy just loves movies about famous figures with their rises, falls and comebacks. But it’s as if historical significance gives these movies an edge. By all reasonable measures, Steve Jobs would be a perfect Oscar bait movie: a biopic about one of the most important men in modern American technological history. What elevates the film, however, is its unusual structure and stellar craftsmanship.
The film presents a snapshot of three different years, 1984, 1988 and 1998. 1984 depicts when the Macintosh computer is about to be launched. But before the launch, Jobs and his team work at hyperspeed to get the computer to say, ‘Hello’ after it fails to do so just before the premiere. The second part is set in 1988 after Jobs is fired from Apple and when he starts another computer company called NeXT, which is about to launch its first computer. The third part of the film takes place in 1998 after Jobs comes back to Apple and is about to launch the iMac.
Several plotlines play throughout the movie. Jobs (Michael Fassbender) meets with his ex-girlfriend, Chrisann (Katherine Watson) in ’84 and ’88, and both times are incredibly contentious as he denies his daughter Lisa’s existence, and Chrisann and Lisa live much harder lives than Jobs. Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg) moves at breakneck speed to get the Macintosh to say ‘Hello,’ and he shows up later as well, when it turns out that he paid for Lisa’s college tuition. Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet) remains a close aid to Jobs throughout, but she is incredibly discouraged by his behavior and treatment of Chrisann and Lisa. John Scully (Jeff Daniels) leaves as President of Pepsi-Cola to become CEO of Apple, only to see Jobs ousted in the mid-80s and get fired himself in the 90s. In ’88, he and Jobs get into a massive argument about the events leading up to Jobs’ ousting by the board of Apple. And, perhaps most heartbreaking, Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen) keeps popping up, mainly to persuade Jobs into acknowledging the Apple II team, with the Apple II being one of Apple’s great successes. But, Jobs continuously disagrees with Wozniak about how the computer should be, or has been, designed and basically accuses the Apple II of causing Apple to stagnate creatively. By the end, Wozniak is too frustrated and heartbroken to continue pushing Jobs.
The film fleshes out the three years with flashbacks, montages and other devices to connect what’s been said and what actually happened to give a full picture of what happened with Jobs and the others. In particular, Jobs proved to be an incredibly shrewd businessperson with the NeXT computer because, while the computer itself was a flop, the technology that NeXT was using helped put it in a position where Apple needed NeXT, which caused NeXT to be bought by Apple and Jobs’ return to his original company.
The three-part structure of the film helps subvert the traditional biopic constraints. Directors Danny Boyle and Aaron Sorkin provide a clear look at both the computer business and Jobs’ life. It could’ve been indigestible, but Sorkin in particular helps lay out everything in understandable ways, which works wonders with his penchant for rapid-fire and super intelligent dialogue.
Usually biopic acting is red meat for the Academy, but the acting nominations in this film will be deserved. Kate Winslet as Hoffman pulls off a perfect American accent and is on fire as Jobs’ fierce right-hand woman. Jeff Daniels is excellent as usual as Scully, who also grows increasingly frustrated with Jobs and his behavior, especially about how Jobs was forced out of Apple. However, the two shoo-ins for nods are Seth Rogen and Michael Fassbender. Rogen should put to rest any doubts about whether or not he can do drama, and his performance as Wozniak is probably the best acting he’s ever done. As for Fassbender, does he look like Steve Jobs? Not particularly. But what we see instead is a man who is uncompromising, incredibly smart, has an unusually canny business sense, incredibly rough-edged but still capable of showing emotion and decency. Jobs in this movie isn’t easy to be around, but Fassbender does a remarkable job of making us watch him even when he’s despicable.
The ending is questionable. He goes to walk onto the stage to present the iMac while managing to fix some things up with Lisa and giving us hints about the iPod after seeing her Walkman. But this is a minor quibble. Steve Jobs does right by the biopic, and this will be one movie that Oscar can rightfully give nominations to.