For some reason, even though I enjoy watching the films of Danny Boyle (usually) and the performances of Michael Fassbender and Kate Winslet (pretty much all the time), at one point I was going to join the many people that have said ‘nay’ by giving Steve Jobs a miss: I don’t find the movers and shakers of big corporations particularly interesting, and I’ve never even considered reading Walter Isaacson’s book on Jobs, which appeared three weeks after the former Apple CEO died and is used as the basis for Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay. The overwhelmingly positive reviews swayed me, and I’m really glad they did, as it’s probably the most exciting two hour movie about a man making keynote speeches that I’ll ever see. Working from a typically dialogue-heavy script by Aaron Sorkin, Boyle’s film paints a vulgar picture of the technology bigwig, played here superbly by Fassbender, during the nervy moments before three separate product launches: the ill-fated Macintosh in 1984, the ill-fated NeXT computer in 1988 and the extremely successful iMac in 1998. Each of these events will be familiar to those of us who have witnessed the more high profile unveiling in recent years of items such as the iPhone, the iPad, the iWatch and the iHavetoomuchofthisshit: the nerdy, drooling and excitable fans, the expectant industry-related journalists, the company bigwigs, the employees and the shareholders are all present, correct and partaking in cringeworthy activity like Mexican waves, foot stomping and rousing crescendos of clapping. (Some people have their sports teams, I guess, some have musicians and others have Apple products.) One of Sorkin and Boyle’s main points is that Jobs became a kind of rockstar CEO, and the parallel is drawn throughout this film, not least through the crowd’s behaviour: each segment is set largely on a stage at a concert hall or in the backstage corridors and dressing rooms, rather than, say, Jobs’ house or his offices within the Apple campus, while the man himself confidently and repeatedly asserts his credentials as an artistic visionary; Bob Dylan’s poster hangs on the wall of the garage used by the young Jobs and coder partner Steve Wozniak (an impressive Seth Rogen), shown in brief flashbacks here, and it’s noticable that the iMac’s ‘Think Different’ campaign, which features heavily during the third segment, also focuses on the likes of Dylan and John Lennon. Wozniak even admonishes Jobs during a dramatic and heated public argument here, claiming ‘I’m tired of being treated like Ringo when I know I was John’. During the same row the following exchange takes place:
Wozniak: What do you do? You’re not an engineer. You’re not a designer. You can’t put a hammer to a nail. I built the circuit board! The graphical interface was stolen! So how come ten times in a day I read Steve Jobs is a genius? What do you do?
Jobs: Musicians play their instruments. I play the orchestra.
Each section features a notable heavyweight clash like this – at one point Jobs jokes that people seem to wait until he’s about to go on stage before letting him know what they really think about him – and the three scenes in question suggest that Jobs’ stubborn nature and egotism was extremely difficult to manage. As well as Wozniak’s attack, which the film suggests has been building for fourteen years or more, the 1984 launch includes a central argument with Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston), the understandably-frustrated mother of his child Lisa Brennan-Jobs (played at different ages by Perla Haney-Jardine, Ripley Sobo, and Makenzie Moss). At this point in time Jobs is in denial that he is Lisa’s father, and in this fictionalised version of events the businessman only begins to warm to his daughter, or even acknowledge the link between them, when she draws a picture using the computer he’s about to sell. The 1988 launch, meanwhile, revolves around a superb scene featuring an understandably bitter Jobs and the man who forced him out of Apple after the Macintosh failed, former Apple CEO John Sculley (a commanding Jeff Daniels). It is repeatedly suggested that the reason for Jobs’ behaviour towards those around him lies in his own upbringing (he was adopted at an early age), and the theme of rejection runs through each thread. Jobs has repeat conversations at each launch with Lisa, Wozniak and Sculley, as well as brief chats with computer scientist Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg) and journalist Joel Pforzheimer (John Ortiz), and we see how each of their relationships with the central figure changes over time. Present at his side or in the background during nearly all of these scenes is marketing executive and confidant Joanna Hoffman, played by Winslet. Jobs places as many demands on her as anyone, if not more, but she is the only person he listens to throughout and he seems to value her blunt honesty more than anyone else’s.
We can presume there’s some truth in this unflattering but fascinating portrait, which ends on a more upbeat, triumphant note, allowing viewers to fill in the ‘what happened next’ gap with their own knowledge. Some have suggested the ending here is a cop-out, but such redemptive moments – business success, a sympathetic softening of the character – I feel are necessary, otherwise we’d be talking about a one-dimensional and straightforward hatchet job that presents its subject as a damaged diva and very little else. The way these relationships change (for the worse, as well as for the better) provides the film with plenty of forward momentum, and as unlikely as it is that the moments before a speech would be so fraught with melodrama, it all makes for great viewing. Many who worked closely with Jobs in real life have criticised the way he has been portrayed in Boyle’s film, but others have suggested that it’s accurate enough; we’ll never know for sure just how close to the bone Steve Jobs gets, but Sorkin’s rapidfire script and the delivery of the actors is well worth the admission fee. In fact it’s only when you analyse the subject matter afterwards that you realise the extent of the writer’s skill and achievement: he injects vibrancy and wit into each discussion that takes place, and the jumps from conversations about family life to boardroom wrangling to technical specifications of software and hardware are as seamless as you could hope them to be. Boyle has created an extremely intriguing film, one with several unexpected visual flourishes, and the editing by Elliot Graham, who did similarly impressive work on the biography Milk, is excellent. As has been widely mentioned elsewhere the supporting actors deliver fine performances, but special mention must go to Fassbender, who appears in nearly every single scene and delivers a fascinating turn that ranks among the best I’ve seen this year. I understand that Sorkin’s work puts some people off, and I wouldn’t count myself as a devotee, but this makes for an excellent companion piece with his earlier Mark Zuckerberg-related screenplay for The Social Network. There’s an argument to say that the company in question gets a bit of a free ride – the timeframe here means that there’s no mention of the suicides at Foxconn, for example – but the accent is firmly on the man, rather than the multinational. I welcome any biographical film that avoids the usual life-work-death structure – at the beginning here Jobs is already a success and his stock in Apple is worth $440 million – and reveals its central character in an unexpected, unusual way: the decision to use three product launches as the background for this story is inspired.
Directed by: Danny Boyle.
Written by: Aaron Sorkin. Based on Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson.
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Seth Rogen, Jeff Daniels, Katherine Waterston, Michael Stuhlbarg, Sarah Snook, John Ortiz, Perla Haney-Jardine, Ripley Sobo, Makenzie Moss.
Cinematography: Alwin H. Küchler.
Editing: Elliot Graham.
Music: Daniel Pemberton.
Running Time: 122 minutes.