In recent years, screenwriter Aaron Sorkin has shown an increasing obsession with writing films and TV series about megalomaniacal geniuses; people who are utter assholes who history proves to have been ahead of their time. The problem is his works are never as cynical as they should be, considering how appalling the behaviour of the leading characters can be – The Social Network is the only adaptation of his work that has managed to convey the appalling attitude of its lead character successfully thanks to David Fincher’s icily detached directing style. In Steve Jobs, the titular character is shown to be yet another grandstanding douchebag, taking credit for other people’s ideas and withdrawing emotionally from those close to him in order to focus on every minute detail of each latest product.
Although originally earmarked to be directed by Fincher, the movie is in the more than capable hands of Danny Boyle, a director without a single cynical bone in his body. Boyle is the only director who can make a miserable piece of social realism about heroin addiction feel uplifting, the “Choose Life” ethos of Trainspotting writ large across every movie he has made since, from the apocalyptic London of 28 Days Later, to the gruesome self-surgery of 127 Hours. For the majority of its running time, Steve Jobs is unambiguously the most cynical movie he has ever made, as he appears to be taking great delight in showing us this utterly appalling character with no feasible emotional redemption. Then, in the final five minutes, the “choose life” ethos kicks into gear and we rush through an entire redemptive arc that feels even more cynical than the character itself – suddenly, we have to sympathise with this character and it feels at odds with the hilariously cynical, dramatically engaging film that came before. The final moments feel like a ham-fisted attempt to ensure the movie doesn’t speak ill of the dead, which is reasonable, but Boyle’s attempts at uplifting humanism more often than not play out as nothing more than shameless awards bait.
The movie covers the moments before three significant product launches fronted by Jobs; the launch of the Apple Macintosh in 1984, the launch of the NeXT computer in 1988 following his ousting from Apple, then finally the launch of the iMac in 1998 as he returns back to the loving embrace of the company who so publicly got rid of him a decade earlier. Played by Michael Fassbender, Jobs is unambiguously a bit of a twat; he refuses to acknowledge he is the father of his own daughter, claiming that “28% of the men in America” could be her father to news sources and publicly shaming his former girlfriend (Katherine Waterston).
Then there is the hubris of the character. Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), the co-founder of Apple, repeatedly gets undermined by Jobs, all for asking he do nothing more than pay his respects to the behind the scenes tech geniuses whose recognition gets ignored in favour of his grandstanding. It is to the credit of both the film and Fassbender’s typically brilliant performance that Jobs never comes across as likeable; as with The Social Network, the more detestable the character becomes, the more darkly comic the movie gets. Sorkin is never better at screenwriting than when he’s chronicling the ups and downs of the Goliaths of the tech world and how their hubris clashes with everybody around them. The one flaw with his screenplay is that the characters never appear to acknowledge anything that has happened in the interim years between each launch; in 1988 all the characters can talk about is ’84, whilst in ’98 it is almost like the nineties never happened as old wounds, which we have seen only minutes earlier, return. Although delivering yet another untrustworthy corporate figure role like he did in The Martian, Jeff Daniels gives a solid performance here; just a shame he is giving nothing more to do than drag up issues from the past we have seen minutes earlier.
From reports I had read prior to seeing the film, it was claimed that Danny Boyle had all but toned his hyper-kinetic directorial style down in order to make an actor’s piece, letting the screenwriting and the performances do all the heavy lifting. Whilst it is true that the product launches play out as character pieces, the interim moments see Danny Boyle go for broke visually; Bob Dylan lyrics appearing onscreen in trippy fonts, entire decades set to montages that treat newsreel footage like Madonna’s “Ray of Light” music video, soundtracked by the punchy indie sounds of The Libertines. Even the product launches are visually distinctive due to the ways in which they are filmed; the 1984 sequence appears to be filmed on grainy film stock for example, adding to the authentic period feel without ever calling attention to itself.
We are living in the world Steve Jobs created – after all, I’m writing this review on a product his company launched. For this reason, it is perfectly understandable why there is a sense of public fatigue with Jobs and Apple products; there have been so many movies and documentaries about the man, it is really hard to create something that keeps him interesting in the public eye. Boyle’s Steve Jobs is the best movie to cover his life so far, which is why it is a shame it has been such a significant failure at the box office. Even with a witty screenplay, crackerjack direction and world-beating performances, it seems people are just tired of Steve Jobs. This is a deeply enjoyable movie which deserves to have the longevity of the iMac, instead of being ignored and then forgotten by audiences like the neXT computer.