Brash, bold and brilliant – the descriptors apply as much to Steve Jobs the man as they do to Steve Jobs the movie. Both have their faults too, ones that are hardwired into their DNA that prove inescapable and intertwined with their genius.
The concept for Steve Jobs is unique – avoid biopic cliches by setting the film in the real-time frenzied minutes leading up to three separate product launches that Jobs spearheaded. With the hyper-verbose Aaron Sorkin tapped for the script, the movie promised to be anything but dull.
And then the lead director/actor duo of David Fincher and Christian Bale dropped out, leaving the project in flux. After bouncing around to seemingly every male star in Hollywood, Steve Jobs was eventually made with Danny Boyle directing and Michael Fassbender in the lead role. Thankfully the movie sidesteps also-ran status by bravely pushing at the margins of the staid biopic genre and crafted its own identity.
Sorkin’s dialogue is mile-a-minute and without a game cast the movie would sink under his stylized script. Fassbender is remarkable in the title role, refusing to soften Jobs’ rough edges (he’s an unrepentant asshole) but still drawing us in through sheer force of will. Like Jack Nicholson’s mob boss in The Departed, Jobs isn’t a product of his environment – his environment’s a product of him.
He cajoles, berates, charms and yells until he gets his way – a genius run amok on the three biggest days of his career. It’s a heightened environment and one you have to take with a grain of salt in order to believe (especially as other characters match wits with Jobs and speak in the same rat-a-tat cadence). Kate Winslet shares the most screentime as Joanna Hoffman, Jobs’ marketing exec, confidant and most trusted adviser. Winslet handles a Polish accent well (it took me a while to get what she was doing) and is the calm in the centre of the Steve storm.
Seth Rogen goes the Jonah Hill route and appears here as Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak. Rogen is amiable in the role of one of Apple’s chief architects, rising to challenge Job’s casual arrogance and constant condescending in one of the film’s many epic arguments. Another long-simmering conflict comes to a head when John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), Apple CEO during the first two product launches, turns from friend to foe after firing Jobs and attempts to secure his legacy in the wake of Jobs’ gigantic lingering grudge.
Fassbender’s Jobs is gleefully single-minded in his goal of changing the world through design and innovation. The movie aggrandizes his legacy as an architect of the digital revolution while only occasionally undercutting his contributions, but the real cost of doing business comes in Jobs’ broken relationships. At first he refuses to even accept his paternity of daughter Lisa (ages 5, 9 and 19 throughout the three launches) before begrudgingly supporting her and her mother Chrisann (Katherine Waterston).
It’s here that the emotional spine of the movie is built. It’s no secret that Jobs’ had a chip on shoulder and often acted out of tremendous hubris, but his growing acceptance of and bond with Lisa is meant to provide an ever-so-brief window into the towering tech giant’s humanity. And while the script is always engaging and funny (“God sent his only son on a suicide mission, but people like him because he made trees.”), it never truly provides empathy, robbing its climax of some weight.
That fact along with some self-consciously clever moments (is that really how Jobs got the idea for the iPod?) and the movie’s reliance on extreme coincidence (ALL of these amazing, insightful conversations took place before launches set 15 years apart?) threaten to undo much of the movie’s strengths but ultimately can’t tear it apart. Danny Boyle’s assured, theatrical direction certainly helps the dense script go down more smoothly.
Boyle makes a number of wise moves, opting to give each time period a unique look and sound. The first in 1984 (the Macintosh launch) is shot on 16mm, while the movie goes to 35m in 1988 and finally to digital in 1998. It’s a transition from grainy to focused, analog to digital, with many of the musical cues following suit as electronic music dominates the last section. And outside of that, Boyle’s ever-acute musical choices are spot on with the use of pop like The Libertines and Bob Dylan.
Steve Jobs upends the traditional biopic structure but forces audiences to willfully suspend disbelief in terms of chance encounters in order to do so. If nothing else, Boyle and Sorkin, combined with a powerhouse performance from Fassbender, have created a sustained high-wire act that crackles with life as it makes its two-hour runtime whiz by in a blur of images and sound. The movie asks if a great man can be good, providing a somewhat facile answer in the process. But it’s the peak behind the curtain – the reveal of The Wizard of Oz – that holds the true charm.
Steve Jobs (2015)
Directed by Danny Boyle
Runtime: 122 minutes