It seems you can’t idly click-through Netflix (other services are available) without coming across a film about Steve Jobs.
Since his death in 2011, the Apple Inc. founder has undergone a cultural canonisation over and above his already messiah-like status among followers of the ‘Cult of Mac’. This ubiquitousness has led box office commentators (i.e. everybody with a net connection and IMDb bookmarked) to speculate that the relatively poor performance of Danny Boyle’s new film is the result of ‘Jobs-fatigue’.
While this theory seems to assume people have actually been watching the workmanlike hagiographic documentaries, it may be that following the docs, the dreadful Aston Kutcher biopic, the many books on Jobs (including the Walter Isaacson biography on which this film is based), anyone interested in seeing a film called Steve Jobs feels they already know everything, and anyone not interested in Steve Jobs is simply unlikely to want to see a film called Steve Jobs.
Personally, I try to leave box-office analysis to a few experts who actually know what they are writing about. While the subject seems to fascinate just about everybody, it is an obsession that is drowning out actual conversations about actual films and whether they are actually worth seeing or not. And here’s the rub. Steve Jobs is absolutely a film worth seeing.
Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s adaptation of Issacson’s authorised bio takes a highly selective approach to the material. This is not a conventional biopic compressing a lifetime into a neat dramatic arc. Instead Sorkin takes only three key events, creating a very stylised and theatrical dramatic structure around three product launches. It is virtually a satirical attack on the conventions of the three act structure – Save the Macintosh?
We begin in 1984 at the launch of the first Macintosh computer, very much Steve Jobs’ baby and the distillation of genuinely radical and iconoclastic ideas about computing. The second act presents the 1988 launch of the NeXT Computer following Jobs ousting from Apple Inc. The final section moves to 1998 and the triumphant launch of the iMac.
Many comments have been made about how the Steve Jobs portrayed in this film is an ‘asshole’, and… well yeah, that is actually pretty undeniable. However, this is not a character assassination, and such sweeping evaluations miss something very fundamental about the film’s structure. Sorkin has not chosen his focus on product launches by accident. These are all times during which Jobs would have been under great stress. This is a portrait of a man’s character and psyche in extremis.
Which is not to make excuses for how Jobs behaves, Michael Fassbender’s performance in the title role is quite brilliant, but it often feels like spending an entire film in the company of the character Alec Baldwin plays in Glengarry Glen Ross. At least in the film’s early sections. This was once a part to have been played by Christian Bale (when it was with director David Fincher) and it is hard not to suspect that may have brought uncomfortable comparisons with Patrick Bateman.
Was Steve Jobs a psychopath? I do not have any idea, but the Jobs in this film certainly appears to have all the traits of a psychopathic personality disorder. Reduced empathy? Check. Antisocial behaviour? Check. Bold behaviour? On a level that can be described as operatic.
Jobs has four key relationships in the film: with Joanna Hoffman; with Steve Wozniak; with John Sculley; with Lisa Brennan-Jobs.
Hoffman (Kate Winslet) is Jobs’ head of marketing and closest confidant. One of the few people who seem to be able to engage with the man and not want to jump off a tall building because of the experience.
Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogan), the co-founder of Apple and a more stereotypical computer nerd. Wozniak was the creator of the Apple II computer, the company’s bread and butter for many years. The Apple II system was a hobbyists dream, highly upgradable, compatible with multiple devices and systems. Jobs hated it. His vision of the Macintosh is its complete opposite. A completely closed system, comparable with nothing, aesthetically beautiful, approachable and usable by the layman.
John Sculley (Jeff Daniels) was the CEO of Apple. Brought in from Pepsi by Jobs himself, Sculley was a close friend, almost a mentor, but was instrumental in Jobs being forced out of Apple following the Macintosh launch.
However, the most important relationship Jobs has, and the real heart of the film, is with Lisa Brennan-Jobs (played by Perla Haney-Jardine, Ripley Sobo, and Makenzie Moss) the daughter he spends much of the film denying is his. Steve Jobs isn’t about tech, it isn’t about iMacs, iPhones, iPads, any of that stuff. It isn’t about Steve Jobs being a genius, or a monster. It is about a father and a daughter, and it may be among the most affecting and heartbreaking portrayals of this relationship seen in any American film this year.
Jobs initial rejection of Lisa is brutal, after her mother Chrisann (Katherine Waterston) claims Jobs’ Apple Lisa computer was named after her he denies this directly to his daughter’s face. Watching the dawning comprehension of a five year old to this act of cruelty is horrible. Nevertheless, when Lisa uses the new Macintosh’s MacPaint programme to create ‘an abstract’ we can see a glimpse of a fatherly bond in the man. A faint glimmer of something that might be, if not love, then at least concern.
Steve Jobs is an elegant film. The central theme of a dysfunctional father daughter relationship makes if far less masculine than you would expect. Director Boyle reigns in most of the stylistic flourishes that characterise his films (they do still erupt on occasion, such as a sequence where Jobs’ used Skylab to illustrate a point and Boyle turns the scenery into something that looks like a Star Trek holodeck). Boyle and cinematographer Alwin H. Küchler make striking compositions, but give the actors and Sorkin’s brilliant dialogue the centre stage. The film is almost entirely set in theatres and interiors, this further emphasises the theatricality of the film. There is almost a Birdman feel to it. A quite marvelous score by Daniel Pemberton (easily my favourite of this year) mixes electronica with traditional orchestration and the film often feels like an opera with spoken word arias.
This is very different from Sorkin’s previous tech industry biographical film The Social Network, much less a procedural story with Jobs a very different protagonist to Mark Zuckerberg. He is not a needy, socially inept nerd, he looks like Michael Fassbender after all. Sorkin-heads will be in heaven, there are many, many scenes of people walking up and down corridors and delivering super witty dialogue really fast. Think of The West Wing. Only imagine if rather than a kindly liberal fantasy portrayed by Martin Sheen the president is a swaggering sociopathic dickhead.
The performances are superb, I’ve praised Fassbender already, but he makes a cold and extremely unsympathetic character completely mesmerising and gives him a spark of humanity that makes him a recognisable human being. Winslet plays a very important supporting role, with a Polish/Armenian accent that seems to get stronger as the film progresses, Winslet plays what she has described as “this difficult fucking terrible part” brilliantly. Frazzled, but just about keeping control of very difficult situations. Rogan plays Wozniak as a lovable teddy bear of a man, constantly being condescended to by Jobs. When he finally snaps, it is glorious. Daniels follows his role in The Martian by taking on another corporate besuited figure who would normally be an antagonist and giving them depth.
Steve Jobs is often so fast paced that it makes The Social Network feel like a Béla Tarr film, after one viewing I’m not sure I caught 40% of the best lines. I have no idea how it works so well, but…
It. Just. Works.