(SPOILERS) The cult of Steve Jobs rather passed me by, probably because I remained Mac-apathetic until a couple of years ago, after he and Apple’s great decade of innovation had simultaneously ceased to be. Sure, their stuff looked cool, but it was disproportionately expensive, and wasn’t it all about the packaging and status appeal, really? Danny Boyle’s film, from Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay (based on Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson) is certainly all about the packaging, both in terms of the confabulated Jobs narrative, by way of a studied three act structure, and the showy shifts in the design and texture of the piece (including changes in film stock). Fortunately, unlike Jobs’ NeXTcube, there’s actually something going on under the hood here.
Steve Jobs is one long conceit on Sorkin’s part, though, much more flagrantly than his previous study of a tech pioneer (Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network), and the result is ultimately less satisfying than Fincher’s film. Sorkin wins points for avoiding the tried-and-tiresome route taken by 99% of biopics, but he can’t quite make his confection irresistible. Focussing on three key events in Jobs’ career, and weaving in the same personal and professional relationships as punctuation points to an extended Noises Off-esque backstage barrage of signature Sorkin exchanges and interplay, the Jobs is essentially composed of three extended conversations, and could easily, with minor tweaking, be transposed to the stage. And I’m sure it will be, at some point.
The events being the 1984 launch of the Mac, in which Jobs is attempting to ensure it says “Hello” when he introduces it on stage, while dealing with co-founder Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), who is pressing him to acknowledge the company’s greatest success, Apple II, during the presentation. He’s also navigating the demands of ex Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston) and the daughter (Lisa, played by Makenzie Moss) whom he refuses to acknowledge as his… until they connect over MacPaint. Then there’s the 1988 launch of NeXTcube (no, I didn’t remember it either), in which Lisa (now Ripley Sobo) wants to come and live with him, and Wozniak, Apple CEO John Sculley (Jeff Daniels) and another original Mac team member Andy Hertzfield (Michael Stuhlbarg) arrive to update us on the intervening period, including the background to Jobs’ ousting from Apple. Finally, there’s the 1998 launch of the iMac, where Jobs, now Apple CEO, must make amends with his daughter (Perla Haney-Hardine) for failing to pay her tuition fees and Wozniak brings up the Apple II thing again, on account of how Jobs is laying of 3,000 staff to make the company ship-shape.
Anyone demanding factual accuracy from a movie will go to town eviscerating this, since, aside from the launch dates, pretty much everything is invented. On the one hand, Steve Jobs serves to emphasise what a hard-nosed, abrasive and dislikeable guy Jobs was, as he steamrollers through the feelings of friends, family and colleagues with the same remorseless lack of empathy. On the other, it’s pretty much a eulogy for his genius, crediting him with such foresight that the failed NeXTcube fast became an elaborate ploy to deposit him back in the Apple fold while the iMac is established as the saviour of the compaby (more accurately, it was the iPod). Jobs refers to what he does as art, with an entirely straight face and over the objections of Wozniak who feels, under such an analogy, he should be the Lennon (rather than the Ringo), since he had the technical nous whereas Jobs merely seized moments. Ironically, genius status is undermined by the conductor metaphor Jobs introduces. There’s undoubtedly skill, and flair, but you could say that of someone apt to make a fortune on the stock market.
Sorkin sets up recurring conflicts in Jobs’ life, apparently after they had been resolved (his difficult relationship with Lisa), so as to engineer a golden-hued reconciliation that makes his personal journey to responsible fatherhood and the career stratosphere over the course of 15 years seem a little too calculated. And Boyle, not the most subtle of visualists, whacks us round the head with this arc. Aspects really work; the bonding over MacPaint is corny but hugely effective, for example. But, while the first two sections represent an ‘80s-nostalgia whirl of ups-and-downs, the final chapter is less successful, succumbing to overtly grandstanding scenes (in front of captive audiences, first with Wozniak and then Lisa) that feel contrived beyond the already fully-fledged contrivance of Sorkin’s structuring and dialogue. Sorkin also rather little clumsily has marketing executive Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet) deliver a ream of exposition regarding where Apple and Jobs are at, and then the next exchange (with Wozniak) renders it redundant by going through it all again (but heatedly this time).
Boyle, while his decision to shift from 16mm to 35mm to digital is the manoeuvre of someone in search of a gimmick rather than a passionate believer in the material, is mostly more restrained than he has been of late. He keeps that camera moving, perhaps too much, but he’s generally focussed on the performances rather than eliciting visual fireworks. That said, there are times when he becomes intrusive or unnecessarily tricky; do we really need flash frames of Jobs’ daughter to tell us he has her on his mind? Or projections on a corridor wall to support his argument when he is holding forth to Hoffman? It whiffs of a director easily bored, and so contrasts negatively with Fincher’s cool, calm, compelling reserve.
There’s also a problem with Fassbender as Jobs. Not that he doesn’t look like him, or that he isn’t effortlessly commanding to watch (he doesn’t, and he is) but that he’s too essentially likeable. It’s only in the third chapter that Jobs’ bastardishness really begins to be felt over the dazzle of the actor’s charisma, and then the character goes and gets offered redemption. Far better, in terms of getting across a guy so many intimates loathed, would have been original choice Christian Bale. Or Sean Penn; I’m sure he could have made him thoroughly unpleasant with very little effort.
Talking of which, boorish oaf Seth Rogen is surprisingly solid as Wozniak, particularly when it comes to the third act shouting match with Jobs. Everyone here is accomplished though, from Stuhlbarg and Daniels to the three Lisas. Particular praise goes to Kate Winslet, who I somehow failed to recognise for the first couple of minutes of Hoffman’s screen time. Joanna has the patience of a saint, and Winslet dominates the screen at least as effectively as the showier Fassbender (albeit her Polish accent does seem to come and go).
Why the box office failure of Steve Jobs? I think probably most people, like me, don’t really care much about the guy. That, combined with a self-consciously clever narrative form from Sorkin. It’s too transparently devised and poised to truly satisfy, too tidy and symmetrical; to go back to the NeXTcube for a comparison, the succession of dramas and stand-offs lack the intentionally imperfect measurements built into cube. As a result, the picture isn’t as accessible or compelling as Moneyball or The Social Network (both of which conveyed a point of interest in their titles, even if you weren’t intrigued by the main players).
Although he’s less frenetic in terms of editing, Boyle’s nevertheless in similar pulling-out-all-the-technical-stops mode as the also-restricted-in-setting 127 Hours. There’s a feeling that, even though this is his best picture in a decade, someone more subdued might have been more suitable (the way David Mamet’s screenplays are often best serviced by Mamet’s own no-frills direction). Steve Jobs might yet get awards recognition to counterbalance the nonplussed audience response, but I think the non-attendance reflects that this is diverting rather than essential. If nothing else, though, seeing the stunning 1984 ad again is a reminder of how Sir Ridders used to really floor us with his visuals. His Prometheus (which I liked, but was no Alien) ought to be instructive to Boyle, also about to revisit and sequelise one of his earliest and best films.