Anyone expecting a messianic hagiography about the life and times of the man who helped to define the digital revolution should prepare themselves for a far more complex – and fascinating – portrait of a brilliant, but deeply flawed man.
Four years after his death, Steve Jobs remains a controversial and divisive figure and it is this multi-faceted approach, rather than the simplicity of a black and white biography that electrifies Danny Boyle’s and Aaron Sorkin’s superb film.
Just as he highlighted the irony of Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg being anything but people-friendly in The Social Network (2010), so too does Sorkin explore the dichotomy of a man who creates machines that help people to connect, whilst singularly failing to communicate with so many of those around him, not least his estranged daughter.
The film’s distinct three act structure, set around the backstage meltdowns that occur shortly before the public launch of a trio of Jobs’ products – the Macintosh in 1984, the failed NeXT machine four years later and the launch of the iMac in 1998 – is purposefully theatrical in both its setting and narrative set up, with Jobs the bloody-minded tragi-heroic lead seeking both revenge and redemption whilst still embracing the character traits that have seen him ascend to the very top.
Sorkin’s script, inspired by Walter Isaacson’s authorised biography, isn’t backwards about coming forwards when it comes to giving a voice to supporting characters with an axe to grind, including fellow Apple co-founder Steve ‘Woz’ Wozniak (Seth Rogen, never better) and engineer Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg). Even marketing executive Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), his staunchest ally and only friend, arguably, often tears her hair out at Jobs’ ardent single-mindedness.
As frustrated as they may be, however, they each remain satellites orbiting around the star attraction, seemingly unable or unwilling to fully cut their ties.
Each act follows a similar pattern, almost down to the order in which Jobs either barks orders, receives home truths or dispenses opinions to his supporting players. Some of the best exchanges take place between Jobs and Apple CEO John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), most notably a mesmerising shouting match shortly before the NeXT launch.
However, it’s Jobs’ relationship with his daughter Lisa that provides the human core of this particular apple. A stubborn refusal to recognise her as his biological offspring (right down to his ill-advised suggestion that 28% of the male population in America could be the father, based on an algorithm that unsurprisingly insults Lisa’s mother Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston)) slowly gives way to acceptance and then affection.
Whilst this is seen more as Sorkin’s film, Boyle’s direction is effortless, both in the roundly excellent performances he draws out of a top-notch cast and in his visual style. Boyle has often been unfairly accused of relying too much on flourishes, but he lets the script do the heavy lifting and instead finds a wealth of subtle moments that build upon the strong foundations of the screenplay.
An on-stage refusal to acknowledge the team behind Wozniak’s baby the Apple II, much to the chagrin of Woz, is nicely undercut when the presentation playing out behind Jobs fades to the iMac’s slogan ‘Think Different’, while the camera often stays for a beat on Lisa’s cumbersome Walkman, knowing as we do the world-changing innovation that would follow (a point rammed home at the end in one of the film’s few duff notes).
Despite looking next to nothing like Jobs, Michael Fassbender’s commanding performance means it never becomes distracting. Fassbender imbues the character with a zeal that wouldn’t look out of place in an evangelical church, while the faltering attempts at human interaction with Lisa never feel forced.
It’s difficult to know just how much of the real Steve Jobs is captured here, but Sorkin, Boyle and Fassbender’s im-mac-ulate film means you can never take your eyes off him, which is kind of the point, no?