Great movies emerge when great filmmakers take great risks. No film achieves without creators pushing to tell a story in such innovative ways to make an audience marvel at the surprise. A great movie dares to break traditions that once defined the film experience.

Steve Jobs is a great movie. Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin reaches beyond the conventions of the biopic to explore what happens backstage in the life of a man who loves the spotlight. While a predictable approach to Jobs’ story might survey the milestones of a landmark career, Sorkin chooses to examine three pivotal days in Jobs’ life. Rather than simply celebrate his accomplishments, or exaggerate his challenges, Sorkin delves into what drives a man to push himself and the people around him beyond reason. Through a piercing lens, Sorkin lets us see behind the curtain of a life that changed life for so many people as he projects the isolation that professional success can create.

Even with this outcome in mind, Sorkin could follow a proven approach. He could tell a linear story with one event in Jobs’ life connected to another. But Sorkin is too savvy a writer to settle for the familiar. Instead he takes his time to develop the characters without feeling the pressure to advance the narrative. Written with the deliberate structure of a three-act play, Sorkin chooses to spend time with Jobs just before he makes major announcements of his products. But these aren’t, necessarily, the products we would expect a biopic of Jobs to highlight. We don’t see the newer sensations that inspire consumers to stand in line for hours. Instead, the film first returns to the early 1980s, when Jobs took a chance on the first Macintosh personal computer, and later visits the roll-out of the NeXT computer and, finally, the original iMac in the 1990s.

Those product launches defines their time periods and the man’s ambitions. Sorkin makes us feel we catch every situation in the middle, as it happens in real time, as if we intrude on what we shouldn’t see. He slowly reveals the layers that create the man, the dreams that drive and the anger that haunts, the people he needs and those he dismisses, and the patience for humanity he can’t abide. Director Danny Glover adds to the distinction in time periods by shifting the locale of each act as well as shooting each act in a different stock. Composer Daniel Pemberton adds to this sense of time with three distinct musical approaches to the segments.

The acting is sublime. Michael Fassbender is spellbinding as the complex Jobs in a performance of raw spontaneity that articulates the emotional claustrophobia that emotionally traps the character. With this role, he leaps to the top of the list of Best Actor contenders for 2015. Supporting performances by Seth Rogen, Kate Winslet and Jeff Daniels supply marvelous texture with precise “lived-in” depictions of people who surround Jobs and bring Sorkin’s words to life.

And the words make the movie. Sorkin brings his uncanny ability to simplify the complex, and highlight the dysfunctional, to a man who hides so much at the same time he offers a great deal. A conventional biopic may celebrated milestones. Sorkin dares to look behind the moments we remember to create memories that we will not forget.

Steve Jobs

  • Content: High. This creative look at an icon’s life could have followed the conventions of the biopic. But Aaron Sorkin is too strong a writer to let that happen.
  • Entertainment: High. Sorkin departs from a traditional survey of a man’s life to focus on three pivotal days in Jobs’ life when he introduces new computer products.
  • Message: High. While the film entertains, as it makes us think, we are left with a clear view of what it takes for anyone to balance personal and professional priorities.
  • Relevance: High. Anyone who follows Apple will be fascinated, anyone who loves good movies will be pleased, and anyone who craves creative filmmaking will be thrilled.
  • Opportunity for Dialogue: High. After you share this film with your older children, talk with them about the realities of balancing professional and personal relationships.

(Steve Jobs is rated R for language. The film runs 122 minutes.)

5 Popcorn Buckets

Behind the Screen: Steve Jobs

“I didn’t want to make a biopic,” admitted Oscar-winning screenwriter Aaron Sorkin when talking about his new film Steve Jobs, “I knew I wouldn’t be good at making that type of film. Instead I wanted to examine the claustrophobic spaces in a man’s life, all that happens behind the scenes of moments we remember. That’s what interested me.”

So, it’s no surprise that, when approaching the life of a figure as iconic as Steve Jobs, a writer as innovative as Aaron Sorkin would take an approach as creative as Steve Jobs. This is, after all, the man who reinvented dialogue on television with The West Wing and Newsroom and, on the big screen, took a fresh look at baseball in Moneyball as well as a stunning look at the young adult ego in The Social Network. When it comes to telling a predictable story in an unpredictable way, Sorkin threads a creative needle to surprise an audience waiting for convention.

“Instead of telling the total story, I decided to focus on three moments in Jobs’ life that define his character,” Sorkin revealed at a question-and-answer session at the recent New York Film Festival “That’s why I wrote the film as three distinct ‘acts’ — each representing three chapters in his life.”

With this approach, Sorkin reaches beyond what we expect from a biopic to explore what we never get to see. The writer takes us behind the scenes to reveal the fear, ambition and disappointment that define three days in Jobs life. The film becomes a three-act look at how a man can refuse to change as he fights to grow.

“We carried this distinct approach to the film’s three segments to how we shot the film, used location and approached music,” said Oscar-winning director Danny Boyle at the discussion. “As a result, you feel you visit three different yet connected worlds, featuring three distinct music scores, one for each of the three acts.”

To enhance this framework for the film, Boyle uses distinct looks for each time period. To recreate the grainy look of the early 1980s, as Jobs prepares to introduce the original Macintosh, Boyle shoots in 16mm film. As time passes, and he introduces later products, the film stock changes to 35mm. The final act is shot in high definition, a choice that does not please costar Kate Winslett. “None of us look good with that much facial detail on the screen,” she laughed at the Festival.

To ensure the actors were prepared for the shoot, Winslett recalls the joy of intense rehearsal. “We had sufficient time to get inside our characters and discuss their relationships so that, when we were on set, we were like a well-oiled machine, which is what you have to be when working with such strong dialogue.” Because of this approach, Michael Fassbender felt he had a real chance to capture “the energy and the essence of the man”.

Thanks to Aaron Sorkin’s creative storytelling, Steve Jobs invites us to imagine more than we knew about this iconic figure. By restricting the narrative’s scope in such a deliberate way, Sorkin gives Boyle and the cast the freedom to explore relationships as the movie reminds us how, in business and in life, people are the ones that matter.