One of the most high-profile biopics of the year, Danny Boyle and Aaron Sorkin’s Steve Jobs seems like one of the ‘sure things’ of this year’s awards cycle. Featuring a bevy of Oscar-friendly performances, a snappy and funny screenplay with some key highlight reel Big Quotes, the newest account of the divisive tech figurehead is bound to feature in many of the major award categories. Yet, there is also something missing at the core of Steve Jobs. While individual parts of the film are rarely less than good and quite often excellent, it doesn’t really coalesce into anything particularly moving. For Apple geeks, this detailed if mythologised look at the rocky history of some of the company’s products accomplishes just that, but for everyone else, it’s an effective prestige piece that is never quite the sum of its parts.
Structurally, Steve Jobs wholly rejects the traditional biopic formula and plays out as three snapshots taking place minutes before the keynote address of three major product launches: 1984’s Macintosh, 1988’s geometric NeXT computer, and 1998’s iMac. At each, central figures in Jobs’ life and career pop up and give him reason to storm about and be a dick to everyone. Whilst Boyle tones down his generally more kinetic style (his beloved Dutch angles still make some conspicuous appearances), he and cinematographer Alwin Kuchler allow one particularly effective visual flourish, in that each era is shot with a different camera: 16mm for the 1984 sequence, giving it a grubbier, rawer feel; 35mm for the operatic, betrayal-filled, second act; and then crisp digital for the 1998 launch, an underplayed but clear visual signal that we’ve entered the internet age. The final shot, however, is an exercise in gaudy mawkishness, and makes you suddenly yearn for the more precise hand of David Fincher, who was the studio’s first choice for this project.
One triumph of the film is its theatrics (using that word deliberately), as Danny Boyle’s unorthodox approach was to rehearse one act rigorously for two weeks, shoot on location, then return to the black box for another two weeks to prepare the next section. This added work returned on investment for every performer on screen, though I can’t help but feel that similarly deep consideration elsewhere would not have been missed.
Fassbender helms the cast, with a remarkable ability to encapsulate affect without reducing his performance to impersonation. Rather than embodying Jobs (like Meryl Streep’s Margaret Thatcher or Daniel Day-Lewis’ Lincoln), he negates his dissimilarities with the man himself through meticulous inward detail; Jobs takes hold of Fassbender rather than the other way around. At his side throughout, Kate Winslet gives a pithy performance as Apple’s marketing director Joanna Hoffman, and foils his protean outbursts with her no-nonsense and measured presence. At a Q&A following a London preview, Rogen remarked “I usually only rehearse for twenty minutes [for my movies]”, and this time his mettle shines through as, though given precious little screen time, his Wozniak adds a touch of humanity and pathos that penetrates Jobs’ otherwise unflinching front of bastardry. Throw in Michael Stuhlbarg’s Andy Hertzfeld, who embodies geekish curiosity, and Jeff Daniels as sometimes villain, sometimes father figure John Sculley and the Sorkin’s patented style of refined reality takes hold… at first.
Undoubtedly the strongest of the three very distinct acts is the first, with unbroken tension escalating the seemingly insignificant event of a tech-demo failure to Jobs’ own perception of such a disaster. The 1988 and 1998 launches are less engaging, overestimating the audience’s interest in profit margins and marketing budgets in the former, and then falling into weirdly sentimental territory as Jobs reconnects with his now nearly-adult daughter Lisa in the latter. Given how strong the dialogue scenes between Jobs and his peers are, the exchanges between him and Lisa don’t ring particularly true, a major flaw in what clearly tries be the film’s emotional centrepiece.
Taking place exclusively backstage in claustrophobic greenrooms and blue-tinted wings, there is very little room to manoeuvre, which places even greater emphasis on the dialogue. The film rolls along in a similar way to Birdman but without the thematic impact or constructive payoff. As a result of the spasmodic fade-in and fade-outs from act to act, character development looks less like a set of well conceived arcs and more like the Macintosh’s sale projections: jagged and unpredictable. Sorkin even has Jobs acknowledge this clumsiness by remarking how odd it is to have so many emotional outbursts before each launch. Were the film guided with a more visually deft directorial hand (like Fincher’s) it could have been a confident wink to the audience. Instead, it glances off as merely apologetic.
Ineffective structure and tone aside, the film’s real strength is showcasing Michael Fassbender. One of the most exciting actors working today, he proves himself yet again to be capable of projecting an almost tangible charisma. Without such an assured lead performer, audiences would be left wondering why anyone should care about someone who is, most of the time, a Grade-A bastard. He can easily dominate a room both verbally and physically, and, at least in 1984, there’s something of a wild predator about him, like a less gaunt version of Jake Gyllenhaal in Nightcrawler. He proves himself the first real frontrunner for the Best Actor Oscar of the year so far.
It’s disappointing that the overall film fails to match its central performances, as Steve Jobs is simply not in the same class as Sorkin’s last look at insufferable genius, the masterful Social Network. Whilst that film compellingly focused on the collapse of Zuckerberg’s friendship as a result of connecting friends around the globe, Jobs is too concerned with the individual product launches themselves, which aren’t well-developed enough for anyone without a specific vested interest in computing history. The motif of Jobs’ products reflecting the man (end-to-end control being ham-fistedly attributed to his adoption) runs dry halfway through, and the act structure becomes wearying rather than engaging. However, most of the dialogue is as sharp and eloquent as one would hope (it sometimes feels that it may have worked better as a play), and when Fassbender hits his stride, he becomes positively iconic in what will likely end up as one of the best performances of 2015.