Danny Boyle’s intriguing biopic wisely mimics its subject in avoiding industry convention.
How does one define the late Steven Paul Jobs? Well, in a few words, one can’t. Not really. The man was many things; a visionary, bordering on genius in several fields, but also a self-centred, socially overly calculating egotistical narcissist. But those are just a few of said many things. Debating whether or not his good traits outweigh the bad would be an exercise in futility. Instead, it is far more interesting to focus on the more agreeable theory that Jobs was simply a fascinating figure, both in and out of the spotlight. The latest feature dedicated to his unflinching existence, Steve Jobs, plays to this idea admirably, with director Danny Boyle and writer Aaron Sorkin combining for a portrayal that’s certainly an intriguing take on both the man himself, and the Hollywood biopic in general. Three convenient acts tell the tale, each covering the launch of a product for which Jobs was at the helm; the Macintosh in 1984, the NeXT Computer in 1988, and the iMac in 1998.
The first aspect we have to discuss above all else is Michael Fassbender. When an actor owns a part with such conviction, it’s always a wonder why anyone else was even considered. But of course Hollywood is a revolving door, and hindsight is quite wonderful. Either way, thankfully Fassbender ended up in the role, turning in a magnificent performance that oozes cold frustration and harsh morality, topped with quite marvellously on point articulation of Sorkin’s almost exaggeratedly poetic rhetoric. The fact that Fassbender is hardly a dead ringer for Jobs is irrelevant, he still shows him to us three times over, transforming again and again into a conveyance of the charisma and powerful presence he was known for, with the physical attributes of the three time periods a mere stage for the emotionally charged showdown with anything and everybody.
Kate Winslet excels also as Job’s hard, staunchly loyal right hand woman, Joanna Hoffman, delivering a grounded no-nonsense yang to the character of Jobs’ sometimes unrelenting, brick wall bashing ying. The one issue is that her apparent Polish accent appears to have a life of its own, drifting back and forth across the Atlantic to sometimes Kevin Costner in Robin Hood levels of excruciation. Regardless, from a direction perspective Boyle demonstrates that his best work stems from a successful collaboration with his lead players. Anyone familiar with my previous articles will know that I love to rave about the technical when it comes to filmmaking, but here I think it’s fair to sit back and simply appreciate the highly engaging human element emitted from in front of the camera.
Uniquely structured for a biopic, the approach of splitting Steve Jobs into three specific acts – intercut with various flashbacks and connected by hasty news bulletin-type montages – has its ups and downs. What works well is the aforementioned treat of witnessing not only three stages of Jobs, but of Fassbender also. Many biopics try to fit in too many changes visually due to their being set over long periods of time, but here that is controlled to a welcome extent in that we don’t feel rushed. We have time with the characters without having to race through each and every key moment from across their lives. When so much of Jobs’ later life existed in a rolling news format, focusing on the times before all that was a wise move. And whilst I promised not to dwell on the technical, I’m almost certain the footage set in 1984 had a grainier look and feel to it, as if it was actually shot in 1984. If deliberate, which I’m sure it was, it’s a nice touch as it helps to represent the jumps forward in technology present in the subject matter.
What doesn’t work as well is that, while the audience doesn’t feel rushed due to the set timeline of events, the result is a hell of a lot of soul searching and life-dictating discussions and decisions going on backstage at major events in very short amounts of time. Sorkin has stated that most of the dialogue was fictional (which, to be fair, isn’t difficult to suss), but that part of the writing isn’t the hindrance (quite the opposite in fact). What is a hindrance is the suspiciously crammed nature of the material from a timeline point of view. Obviously it was necessary for the production to work, but when the same formula rolls around not just twice, but thrice, a little part of you tends to be pulled out of the movie. Another disadvantage is that Winslet’s faltering accent stands out so much more, as its main discrepancy occurs either side of the jump between the first and second acts – an evident victim of the probable chronology of the shoot. Having said that, it’s all made up for by some terrific lines (“He made trees!”) and neat, almost throwaway foreshadowing (Jobs explaining the meaning of “coincidence” to Lisa before later revealing the coincidental nature of the Apple brand’s link to Alan Turing) that bring us back full circle to the overall quality of both delivery and performance.
Finally, the history of Apple products up until the first generation iPod is not all that tangible in the lightning paced internet-based time in which we now dwell, due, fatefully it would seem, to the development of devices later pioneered by Jobs – including the one I’m typing on, and one there’s a very good chance you’re reading on. The rapid relevant-to-obsolete cycle of technology is hardly something to cry about, but as a historian I believe in the preservation of what came before, usually because the stories behind said technology, as well as whether it succeeded or failed, are as interesting as the technology itself. And indeed, what better way to do that on a basic level than a well made Hollywood movie. If even a few members of current generations (my own included) too young to remember these products decide to perform a bit of research as a result, then as a fervent historian I see that as a win. Therefore, the decision to plan the film specifically around launches of the aforementioned Jobs-related computers makes the machines as much a driving part of the story as Jobs himself. Compared to other examples, in which the relevant hardware is incorporated for reasons amounting to little more than a prop up for unnecessarily Hollywood takes on eccentric inventors and their life-altering inventions (see, ironically, The Imitation Game), I say to this particular effort: good job.