I had to drum up an unusual amount of encouragement to go a see Steve Jobs a couple of weeks ago (it got a late release where I am) that, the more I’ve thought about the film afterwards, the more I’m retroactively baffled by. This is the new film from Danny Boyle, a director who’s made some films I’ve really liked in the past, written by superstar screenwriter (that’s a pleasingly unusual term to be able to write) Aaron Sorkin, whose film work I generally enjoy, and starring Michael Fassbender, arguably the best film actor to have emerged in the last decade. Although it fumbled at the US box office, it still garnered a brace of stellar reviews praising almost all aspects of it.
The problem was, I just had very, very little interest in seeing a biopic about Steve Jobs. Or rather, I should say, another biopic of Steve Jobs, as I’m apparently one of the few people who endured the awful Ashton Kutcher movie Jobs a couple of years back. I didn’t see anything in that film, or indeed from what I know about Jobs’ life in general, that would lend itself to a particularly compelling movie, plus I have next to no interest in Apple or their company history. Well, it turns out this is one of those occasions when I’m quite happy to be completely wrong.
Unlike Jobs, and most typical prestige biopics, Sorkin’s approach in adapting Walter Issacson’s bestselling biography of Jobs is not to try and tell the story of the man’s entire life and career, but instead focus on specific events in it. We’ve seen a few nominal biopics such as Lincoln decide to just portray one important but relatively short period in their subject’s life but I’ve not seen a biopic that distils itself down to such short stretches as Steve Jobs does, and that ultimately allows it to feel like a much more interesting and unique movie.
Steve Jobs does not take place over the course of one key period, but three specific days, several years apart. Almost all of the film’s events occur backstage before Jobs is about to announce three landmark product launches; the Macintosh in 1984, the NeXT Computer in 1988, and finally the iMac in 1998.
It’s very unlikely that the scope of a man’s life could actually be compressed into three spaces of under an hour each, and Steve Jobs, like the similarly Sorkin-penned The Social Network doesn’t seem to be overly concerned with realism. All the characters speak in the dense, heightened, rapid-fire dialogue for which Sorkin has become renowned. They don’t often sound like real people having real conversations but the unrelenting brace of wordplay is irresistibly compelling to take in.
The film does acknowledge its own artifice at times too, with Steve even commenting at one point on whether everyone just waits for these product launches to finally express their true feelings of him. Within its literal three-act structure, it succeeds in creating a narrative regarding Jobs’ fatherhood, beginning with his vicious denial that he is the father of a young girl, to his eventual acceptance of, and inspiration from her. This concludes with him observing her chunky Walkman and commenting how he’ll “put 500 songs in her pocket”. I’m quite certain that’s not how the iPod came into being but it works in context here. Throughout, the film manages to convey Jobs’ drive for success above all else, yet also his particular preferences for a “closed system”, essentially the reason I’ve never purchased a single Apple product.
The structure of the film is inherently stage-like, taking place almost entirely backstage and while it could easily work as a play, it never comes across as a piece of filmed theatre. That said, Danny Boyle’s camera plays a more anonymous role than usual, there are no attention-grabbing editing techniques of visual effects on display here like ones he’s excelled using before. There are still a few touches that seem characteristically Boyle’s though, such as employing a few unconventional and anachronistic song choices to enhance key moments. There are also a few flashback scenes within discussions Jobs has with others that expand our view of his life beyond the time periods on screen that flesh him out further as a human and avoid feeling like cheats to the deliberate structure.
The whole film has an excellent supporting cast who come in from time to time, often to be yelled at by Jobs. These include Michael Stuhlbarg, Sarah Snook, Katherine Waterston, Seth Rogen demonstrating previously unseen dramatic depths and a somewhat wobbly accented Kate Winslet as the only person who seems to like Jobs in some manner. While her performance is generally solid, the film never quite explores how she puts up with him. The best exchanges occur between Fassbender and Jeff Daniels as Apple CEO John Sculley, with the two great actors throwing dialogue back and forth like a couple of tennis pros. At one point we get a flashback to an earlier conversation between the two during a heated current one, which is expertly edited to keep it all coherent.
As Steve Jobs himself though, Fassbender towers above all. The fact that he bears next-to- no resemblance to the real Jobs is irrelevant. He creates an incredibly watchable portrait of a detestable, yet plausible egomaniacal asshole, as he is indeed directly called in the final act. I know all the attention is going to Leonardo DiCaprio at the moment but I will be rooting for Fassbender come Oscar night.
Steve Jobs is an unusual biopic that avoids most of the typical trends right to the end. There are no concluding fact cards to finish out the movie, and I can’t recall the last time a biopic excised these. The film relies on us to bring our own knowledge of Jobs to it; it doesn’t make the case for him being some sort of world-changing innovator or troubled genius. All in all, the film adds up to a fascinatingly unconventional biopic, and a brilliant portrait of a difficult man.