Steve Jobs (US-UK 2015)

Michael Fassbender as Steve Jobs, artfully framed by Danny Boyle and Alwin H Küchler

Michael Fassbender as Steve Jobs, artfully framed by Danny Boyle and Alwin H Küchler

Screen 1 at Curzon Soho was not full for the first evening screening of Steve Jobs (on the night of the Paris attacks). This doesn’t augur well for a film that has been designated a ‘flop’ in North America. It’s a shame that this production isn’t succeeding commercially, though given its relatively modest – by Hollywood standards – budget of $30 million it won’t be the disaster some commentators seem to be gleefully anticipating. All involved in the film will be comforted by the high levels of critical acclaim that the film has generated so far and in the group that I was part of, all of us were impressed by the script, performances, direction and technical contributions.

Inevitably Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs has been compared to David Fincher’s The Social Network, especially since Fincher reportedly turned down the chance to direct Steve Jobs because the fee offered was too low. I was not a fan of The Social Network but it was well made. However, it cost $50 million and I think Danny Boyle did a better job on a smaller budget. Aaron Sorkin wrote both films – with Steve Jobs heavily dependent on the biography of Jobs written by Walter Isaacson. Neither film is a biopic in the conventional sense of the term, both focusing on the founding myths and early years of the two companies (Facebook and Apple).  Steve Jobs covers three moments of Jobs ‘presenting’ aspects of his ‘work’ (or perhaps his ‘vision’). The Social Network sometimes feels like a thriller/legal investigation into who did what, whereas Steve Jobs is more like a relationship drama with Jobs ranged against five different individuals, most of whom have positive reasons to love/admire him as well as genuine anger about what he has done.

Danny Boyle is a theatre director as well as a renowned film director and he seems like the perfect choice for a film which is heavily biased towards long dialogue scenes in enclosed spaces. Boyle rehearsed his cast for two weeks before shooting each of the film’s three sections and the result is a series of dialogue exchanges which really zing and hum with intensity (and quite a few laughs). But despite the restrictions, Boyle finds ways to make the film narrative genuinely cinematic in feel. I’m at a loss as to why some critics (and film scholars) disparage Danny Boyle. He makes films that are always interesting to watch – and he seems like a genuinely nice bloke (and a genuine supporter of working-class popular culture as part of film and theatre). He is often innovative in his approach to the visual style of his films and here he turns again to Alwin H. Küchler (who previously photographed Boyle’s Sunshine in 2007). Küchler has been one of the best UK-based cinematographers since the 1990s (he trained at the UK National Film School) and first worked for Lynne Ramsay and then Michael Winterbottom. The three sections of Steve Jobs are set in 1984 with the launch of the first Macintosh, 1988 with Jobs’ presentation of his NeXT cube and 1998 with the iMac launch. These are photographed in 16mm, 35 mm and HD with interesting ‘bridging’ moments. It would require a second viewing to see if the sections are also framed differently or if there are other distinctive features.

Michael Stuhlbarg, Michael Fassbender and Kate Winslet at the show to launch the Apple 2 in 1985.

Michael Stuhlbarg, Michael Fassbender and Kate Winslet at the show to launch the Apple 2 in 1985.

Kate Winslet is a revelation in her role as Jobs’ Marketing Manager and Michael Fassbender is as terrific as Jobs as we all expected. Jeff Daniels is the CEO who battles Jobs and Michael Stuhlbarg is the engineer in a similar position. Seth Rogen and Katherine Waterston draw the short straws as Steve Wozniak (the co-founder of Apple with Jobs) and the mother of Jobs’ daughter – two roles that are restricted to being angry about Jobs’ behaviour. The real question, as another friend suggested to me is: “Why would anyone buy a ticket to see this film?”. Despite the great script, terrific performances etc.  the truth is that the film almost deliberately thwarts the expectations of at least two communities. Apple devotees interested in the history of the computers get only a partial story that stops in 1998. Anyone who sees Steve Jobs as some kind of visionary figure (the film begins with a clip of Arthur C. Clarke ‘predicting’ the coming of the personal computer) may well find his treatment of his closest colleagues and collaborators repellent. And those who actually enjoy the ‘warts and all’ story are likely to be dismayed by the last (unnecessary) 10 minutes which become very sentimental. The truth is that in the early days of Apple, the computers were venerated by relatively small groups of people who struggled to convince others in a world dominated by Microsoft. And it’s true that the machines were expensive and actually not very useful outside certain DTP and Design applications until the appearance of the G3 range in 1997. This is more or less when Steve Jobs ends with the announcement of the iMac. Unlike Facebook which the majority of the audience know something about, Jobs and Apple’s story is obscure for most of the audience who know Apple through its ‘phones and tablets.

In some ways the script refers back to those Warner Bros. biopics of the 1930s – about the great men and women who did something unique. But Jobs’ achievements are not as easily defined as those of Madame Curie or Louis Pasteur. To really understand some of his ‘vision’ requires a great deal of context about computer design and the history of the industry which can’t be contained in a feature like this. Sorkin’s script relies on the marketing/promotional spiel at the launches of new products (were these his unique contributions?). Little is heard about Microsoft (or the Amiga and Atari – both as important as Apple in the 1980s). When the breakthrough comes with the iMac in 1998, there is no mention of Jony Ive who designed it. Ive has spoken about Jobs as having “bold” and “magnificent” ideas, but he is the one who puts them into practice like Steve Wozniak did earlier, only to be ditched by Jobs.

Steve Jobs will endure as a film to be studied, I think, and it represents another chapter in Danny Boyle’s interesting directing career, even if it doesn’t do the expected business at the box office.

Here’s the ‘featurette’ that tries to explain what the film is about:

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3 comments

  1. Rona

    I think this film could usefully be contextualised by recent releases such as Foxcatcher or Whiplash. I think they all represent a desire to look a little deeper into those American myths of power. Perhaps Citizen Kane makes a better ‘studio’ (to the extent that was a studio film) reference. Sorkin clearly was never interested in a biopic, he’s said as much, in the same way The Social Network is not (so much) about Facebook. This is as much a Sorkin film and it demonstrates Boyle’s capacity to park his ego, but not his creativity. Another aspect of being a theatrical, as well as a film, director. Boyle has made interesting comment in comparing it to Fincher’s film – speaking about how ‘The Social Network’ is conducted sitting down and it is significant when characters choose to stand up. Boyle looked to reverse that kinetic movement in his film, as a recognition of the films’ relationship and as a consideration of how the intellectual workings of these different ‘geniuses’ functioned.

    • Roy Stafford

      All good points – though since I haven’t seen Whiplash or Foxcatcher I can only judge by the reviews. I’m not completely sure I understand the Citizen Kane reference but I can see that Jobs and Kane/Hearst certainly shared personal qualities and ‘vision’. My references to 1930s biopics was intended simply to refer to ‘heroic’ figures who had done something that the mainstream audience would recognise. I’m not sure that what Jobs achieved in this period has enough ‘profile’ to attract the audience. As a melodrama the whole Steve Jobs story could perhaps be fictionalised? There are some interesting stories in there!

  2. keith1942

    I agree with Roy about the techniques, style and performances of the film: not much else.
    What we get is arguments in rooms and arguments as people walk down corridors. Then there re the frustrated copulations when we see the preparations for a launch, but not the launch.
    The one moment of humanity in the film was between Jobs and his daughter, Liza. But that is just a plant fore the sentimental ending.
    The Social Network, whatever its failings provided some context, gave one a sense of why Facebook succeeded and managed to give [me at least] some understanding of the technology.
    This film fails on all three.
    My sense is that Steve Jobs was an even nastier character than Kane, he was certainly more of a control freak. But there comparisons end: Kane is masterpiece, this is a well done but what?
    This film may be about a small group of characters, but it is also about ‘commodity fetishism’. What about a European remake by Jean-Luc Godard?
    It gave me a headache. When I got home I put on some Haydn to relax.

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