Steve Jobs (2015)
Dir: Danny Boyle
A film written by Aaron Sorkin, I’m in. Directed by Danny Boyle, I’m doubly in! Showing Steve Jobs in a less flattering light than some of the more hagiographic films that have been produced in the few years since his death… I already said I was in!
Backstage at three key product launches, we see a condensed view of the life of Steve Jobs (Michael Fassbender), with these brief intense sessions that bring together his personal and professional life, in his business dealings as well as relationships with colleagues and others.
Though I’m no fan of Apple or Steve Jobs I wanted to see this as a joint work of two of my favourite film-makers. Throw in a really great cast and it appealed to me from the start as a potential recipe for brilliance. In the end, does it manage to be more than the sum of its impressive parts? I think so.
Futurist Arthur C. Clark was so right, the film opens with archive footage of him standing in front of a room-filling computer while predicting that someday we’ll have computers in our homes, part of our lives, able to book theatre tickets. You instantly realise how far technology has come and what you’re about to see is a turning point, making computers cool and a desirable possession, something Jobs was determined to be instrumental in. There are a few scenes in which we really get a dose of quality tech talk, unsurprising, yet it’s lighter than you might have expected. I’m one of those people who likes things like that and can get the subtext from it, so I found it interesting. Especially so when they are discussing the different views of what a computer should be like, their ongoing argument on developing open or closed systems. While Wozniak was right from one perspective, Jobs was clearly right on the consumer level and it really underpins much of their dynamic as well as Jobs’ values throughout the film, specifically when it comes to having control from start to end.
Shakespeare penned the words:
‘All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts’
This came to mind, not least in part because the film has theatre settings and feels like if not a film it would’ve been a superb stage play, but also it seemed fitting with regards to this figure. Jobs was a big player on the world stage, making yearly entrances that captivated hundreds of millions around the globe and Sorkin’s way of getting into the material (something he apparently struggled with for a while) is to go back to his stageplay roots, somehow perfectly justifying all the choices in the film and sweeping aside many of the criticisms. Sorkin’s rapid dialogue appears right away, quickly immersing us in the situation as well as introducing a mix of business and personal themes that will continue throughout, both work well. Dramatic licence has been liberally applied to condense and combine all that needs to be said and shown into these sessions, repeatedly bringing everyone back to one place to fit together neatly. Clearly it’s not a representation of real events exactly as they happened, they are key settings, three product launches as milestones that are used as a lightening rod for everything else, to embody all the themes.
Let’s get the obvious out of the way, Michael Fassbender doesn’t look like Steve Jobs, certainly not in the way that Ashton Kutcher had an uncanny likeness when playing him in ‘Jobs’. That doesn’t really matter though, as stated already Sorkin has applied dramatic licence, we’re not really supposed to think this is an entirely accurate depiction of Steve Jobs and his life. It’s condensed, conversations are fabricated around a nub of truth and so the performance needs to capture more of an essence of Steve Jobs rather than be a photographic likeness to him. In that regards Fassbender is great, you quickly forget he doesn’t look like Jobs so much and realise that his performance is beautifully capturing his creative but abrasive personality.
Kate Winslet is customarily superb. Her role as Jobs’ long-time colleague and friend Joanna Hoffman is a very strong one, I’d almost argue she should be considered female lead rather than it being a supporting role, though supporting him is exactly what her character does. Seth Rogen is unexpectedly great, though his role as ‘the other Steve’ is pretty small he really surprises. Some have said his role’s too small and insignificant in this film, though I think that’s almost purposeful. His scenes serve to really shine light on Jobs’ thinking and personality, just as Wozniak has been overshadowed in real life, he is here too.
While Sorkin’s script was the one piece of production that held in place amidst directorial and casting changes, there are a few Danny Boyle flourishes that come through. Certain scenes have a sense of his past work, most notably ‘127 Hours’, especially between eras when we get rapid montages of news stock to fill in the gaps. There’s also one scene in which we see images of rocket launches on the walls as if projected on to them, illustrating the conversation being had. There’s also fantastic use of different film formats for the different times, starting with 16mm, then 35mm and going to digital in the final act, giving each a distinctive look which is distinguished in other ways such as the colour palette too.
You might have thought that the famous iPod or iPhone launches would be the ones to feature but this film takes up the story far earlier, to a time that was more interesting for him as a man, developing his famous persona, not just developing interesting products. Also before these points he wasn’t the same man we got to be so familiar with, before the internet was in every home and the product launches were headline news. We are treated to brief flashback scenes that take place out of the theatre settings at just a few points in the film, and these are particularly enjoyable to really establish roots, they are kept brief and always add to the rest rather than become the focus of the film, I’m really glad they are in there and I would have liked a little more of that though I can see why it’s kept to a minimum.
My only major criticism is the end. The final scenes bring a resolution that may be a little too neat and positive in the light of everything that’s come before. I know that we’ve established things are condensed for the sake of the film, but it reveals a sentimentality to Jobs that has been absent for the rest of the film, which when revealed right at the end may come across too insincere and thus undermines itself. Along with that I found the music a little too prominent at times, it felt a little overpowering and detracted from the scenes slightly which is a shame, especially in these problematic final scenes. Maybe it was the mix that didn’t just work for me, though it’s possible I’ll feel differently on a second viewing.
In the U.S. it was considered a massive ‘flop’ when put on wide release, yet as often happens the critics realised its worth more than the marketing managed to sell it to cinema goers. Now lauded in awards season and about to get home release, I think this is undervalued when judging worth based on box office receipts. Modern Apple users want ease of use, maybe that’s why this struggled because it isn’t that, it’s a film you have to invest concentration and brain power in. I was happy to do so and found that I gained greater appreciation for Steve Jobs, through learning things about his life that I had no knowledge of before and this powerful representation of his determination, whether right or wrong. When a film can do that to the most staunch of Apple haters, it must be doing something right.
Kate Winslet won a BAFTA for her role in the film and may repeat that at the Academy Awards where ‘Steve Jobs’ is nominated for just two Oscars, ‘Best Actor’ for Fassbender and ‘Supporting Actress’ for Winslet.