Danny Boyle, Aaron Sorkin and Michael Fassbender have teamed up for the first time (and hopefully not the last) to tell the story of Steve Jobs, one of the most powerful and influential men in modern tech history. The results are extraordinary. With a distinctive three-act structure Steve Jobs takes a viewer behind the curtain of Jobs’ world to reveal the man’s insecurities, the flawed and fractured relationships that defined his character, and the brash, ruthless decision-making that attributed to his success with Apple. It details the minutes leading up to Jobs’ tech-landscape defining 1984, 1988 and 1998 product launches, building an unglamorous portrait and subverting common rules of the biopic with attention to specificity and the fleet-of-the-moment.
This fly-on-the-wall approach and Boyle’s shifting association of form with time are just some of the features that makes Steve Jobs a fascinating and satisfying film. Sorkin’s screenplay, adapted from Walter Isaacson’s 2011 biography, is very-Sorkin-y (The West Wing, The Social Network, The Newsroom) so if you’re familiar with his work, you know the cockiness and wit that you’re in for. His characters talk fast and smart, and his scripts require an alert viewer. But Steve Jobs is a testament to his skills as a dialogist, because it zips along at a breakneck pace (you’d never guess it clocks in at two hours) fueled by the increasingly emotional exchanges between the characters as Jobs grapples with his past failings and their influence on the possibility of future success, as well as the repercussions of past decisions that he finds resurrected at inopportune times.
At each of the launches Jobs has a series of appointments with people in his life. Apple’s marketing executive Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet) offers timely support and guidance, while fussing to make sure that Jobs is prepped for his presentation. The cast of characters – the heart and soul of the Steve Jobs machine who make appearances at each of the launches like ghosts of Christmas past, present and future all at once to remind him of who he is and where he came from – include his respected head engineer, Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg), his ex-girlfriend and the mother of his daughter, Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston), Apple co-founder and creator of the Apple II, Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), and Apple CEO, John Sculley (Jeff Daniels). As Jobs traverses the labyrinth of backstage hallways he deals with unexpected presentation issues, paternity claims, ultimatums, and dissatisfied former colleagues, running the gauntlet between the comforts of the stage where the illuminated screen and charismatic oratory can mask his various stresses, and the anxiety-stifling atmosphere of his locker room where he is forced (by Joanna) to face many of his problems head-on.
As Sorkin was crafting his screenplay he was allowed the chance to speak with each of the key people listed above and they had a role in shaping the portrayal of their characters and the development of the film. A number of different directors and actors were linked to the project, including David Fincher, Christian Bale and Leonardo DiCaprio before Boyle and Fassbender, and rumour began to swirl about the project being troubled. However, there is no evidence here to suggest a fraught production at all. The entire cast is impressive – handling the Sorkin dialogue and the famous ‘walk-and-talk’ like veterans.
It is Fassbender, present in every scene, who commands the screen, truly earning his first Best Actor Oscar nomination with another flawless accent, contradicting Jobs’ egotistical narcissism with a twinkly charm and a carefully hidden vulnerability. Winslet, who has proven herself again to be a master of accents, is assigned spectacular style by the costume department but makes her mark through her headstrong capabilities and a unique pathos and admiration for Jobs in order to overlook his flaws and cultivate the best of his abilities. Jeff Daniels, who doesn’t stretch too far away from the frumpy CEO much these days (see The Martian), fits this role perfectly, Michael Stuhlbarg adds ever-reliable support, while Seth Rogen is excellent as the understandably bitter Wozniak. A late heated stand-off between Rogen and Fassbender is amazing work from both men.
Steve Jobs breaks down the myth of the man. He was mysterious – and the film does go so far to suggest that he ruled his empire with an iron fist, exploiting his employees with irregular demands, selfishly claiming the glory and wealth for himself. He is a deplorable, ‘poorly made’ human being a lot of the time. Jobs’ relationship with Chrisann remains stubbornly sour throughout, but his empathy for his daughter Lisa – whom he bonds with through MacPaint as a child, and eventually values her opinion above everyone else as a young adult – increases as he realises just how important she is to him.
Wozniak asks Jobs the big question at one point: “What do you do?” He is repeatedly called a genius in the media, but he isn’t an engineer and hasn’t ever built a machine with his own hands. Jobs defends his role of the conductor, whether he is working for Apple or NeXT, claiming that he “plays the orchestra”. He says that he wants to change the future, and give human beings what they want, but does he understand them enough to really know? This is one emotional arc that I appreciated. We finally see him connect with his daughter, and come to some understanding about modern youth, and you see this burden being lifted. He clearly sees the future for his company, confident they’ll be unblemished by past risks.
Alwin H. Kuchler’s lensing – shooting on 16mm, 35mm and digital respectively for the three launches – was the result of an intellectual collaboration between he and Boyle in order to capture Jobs’ own development aesthetic and the technological level of the product at the time. Kuchler has worked with Lynne Ramsay on Ratcatcher and Morvern Callar, and also shot Boyle’s Sunshine (arguably his best-looking film) and Joe Wright’s striking Hanna. These characters talk fast, but Kuchler’s poised camera and Elliot Graham’s efficient editing (very impressive work, considering the amount of dialogue) are always keeping up with the script, offering stylistic flourishes that feel both subdued for Boyle’s standards and yet compatible to this film, elevating it in unexpected ways.
By Andrew Buckle
Director: Danny Boyle
Writer(s): Aaron Sorkin
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Seth Rogen, Jeff Daniels, Michael Stuhlbarg, Katherine Waterston
Runtime: 122 minutes
Release date(s): Australia: February 4, 2016