1984, 1988, 1998, Aaron Sorkin, Apple, Biography, Black cube, Computers, Computing, Danny Boyle, Drama, Father/daughter relationship, History, iMac, Jeff Daniels, Kate Winslet, Literary adaptation, Macintosh, Michael Fassbender, NeXT, Product launches, Review, Seth Rogen, True story
D: Danny Boyle / 122m
Cast: Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Seth Rogen, Jeff Daniels, Michael Stuhlbarg, Katherine Waterston, Ripley Sobo, Makenzie Moss, Perla Haney-Jardine, Sarah Snook, John Ortiz
Steve Jobs – maverick genius, arrogant manipulator, or indifferent human being? In Danny Boyle’s latest movie we get to learn that the late founder and CEO of Apple was all three, which shouldn’t be a surprise as each description isn’t exclusive of itself. But where Aaron Sorkin’s script, adapted from Walter Isaacson’s book, impresses most is when we see Jobs being all three at the same time.
The structure of the movie allows us to see Jobs at three separate points in his life, and each time in the immediate lead up to a product launch. So in 1984 we see him trying to launch the Macintosh, Apple’s first new product in seven years since the Apple II. In 1988 he’s on his own, attempting to impress everyone with the NeXT computer, an item that is doomed to failure. And we end on a high note in 1998 with the launch of the first iMac and Jobs’ ensuring he would never be forgotten. It’s like a crazy rollercoaster ride, as the advances in computer innovation are revealed to be less important than marketing and design. As Jobs so aptly puts it, “They won’t know what they’re looking at or why they like it but they’ll know they want it”.
By telling Jobs’ story in three distinct episodes, Boyle and Sorkin, with the aid of a very talented cast, reveal how Jobs started with an idea and kept pursuing it for over fifteen years. That idea may have gone through some variations in all that time, but the movie paints a very convincing portrait of a man driven by the need to do things differently and in a way that’s at odds with everyone around him. In his pursuit of excellence in home computing, Jobs brooked very little compromise, and we see this in the meticulous nature of his product launches, where even the Exit signs have to be switched off so that the visual presentation can have the most impact. Jobs doesn’t compromise, and he doesn’t recognise the value and support of the people around him, including his old friend and co-creator of the Macintosh, Steve Wozniak (Rogen), and his long-suffering personal assistant Joanna Hoffman (Winslet).
Each launch brings its own set of issues and problems for Jobs to overcome, from the first Macintosh’s failure to say “hello”, to the NeXT computer’s lack of an operating system, to Wozniak’s public insistence that the iMac launch should include an acknowledgment of the work put in by the team who made Apple II so successful. Jobs refuses to accept that any of these will interfere with his plans for success, and he drives the people around him with a fierce determination that is both alienating and patronising. The movie keeps Jobs focused and uncompromising in his self-belief, right until the end, and as an anti-hero he fits the bill entirely.
But while the behind the scenes manoeuvrings that show how each phase of Jobs’ career were a necessary, evolutionary step (for him and his computers) all make for compelling viewing, the movie is less successful with its three act structure than it realises. Each section relies on a lot of repetition, as encounters and personal problems are examined each time, albeit from slightly different angles. Jobs’ condescending treatment of Wozniak is a case in point, as is his dismissive treatment of computer engineer Andy Hertzfeld (Stuhlbarg). And then there’s Lisa, the daughter he tried to deny having.
Jobs’ relationship with Lisa is one of the bigger subplots in the movie, and as an attempt by Boyle and Sorkin to show the man’s more “human” side, it’s nevertheless quite clumsy and unconvincing in its execution. At the first launch, Lisa is five years old; up until she uses a Macintosh to draw a picture, Jobs is distant toward her, and to her mother, Chrisann (Waterston). But the picture changes his feelings about her, and in the other two acts we see the same sort of thing happen again, as Jobs begins to treat Lisa as a person and not a Court-confirmed inconvenience (Jobs was so arrogant that upon learning that a paternity test showed it was 94% certain he was Lisa’s father, he came up with an algorithm that counter-claimed that the 6% difference meant Chrisann could have slept with any one of twenty-eight million men and the result would have been the same). While it’s a creditable attempt to humanise Jobs, it’s these scenes that carry the least weight, and the least credibility. By the time Lisa is nineteen and on the verge of wanting nothing to do with him, all it takes is for Jobs to say he was “poorly made” and she forgives him just like that (as well as a hastily improvised bribe that promises she’ll have one of the first iPods).
More potent is the relationship Jobs has with John Sculley (Daniels), the CEO he poached from Pepsi to run Apple in the Eighties. It was Sculley who had Jobs ousted from Apple following the disastrous sales of the Macintosh, and Sorkin’s script soars whenever it focuses on the pair’s uneasy relationship. There’s a bravura scene where Jobs confronts Sculley over what he sees as the CEO’s betrayal of him, and Boyle intercuts with flashbacks that show the depth of Jobs’ own complicity, giving the audience a balanced view of what happened and why. Both Fassbender and Daniels are superb in these scenes, and the movie has a fire and an energy that it lacks elsewhere.
As expected, Boyle elicits strong performances from his cast, with Fassbender giving a superb performance as the empathy-lite Jobs, and Winslet stealing the movie out from under him as Joanna. Winslet is simply in a class of her own, adding subtlety and shading to a role that would otherwise have been quite bland. When she confronts Jobs over his treatment of Lisa before the ’98 launch, the pent-up emotions she releases are as liberating for the viewer as they are for Joanna. In support, Rogen shows fleeting glimpses of the actor he can be when he’s not channelling Seth Rogen, and Daniels is magnificent as Sculley.
Jobs is frequently challenged as to what he can actually do, and at one point he tells Wozniak that “musicians play their instruments. I play the orchestra”. With Jobs, Boyle shows himself to be a great conductor as well, but thanks to some uncomfortable narrative decisions borne out of Sorkin’s script, this isn’t as rewarding as some of his other movies, and his control over the material, while evident throughout, isn’t enough to overcome the movie’s built-in deficiencies. That said, and as with all of Boyle’s movies, it’s visually stimulating and in tandem with editor Elliot Graham, he maintains a pace and a rhythm that propel the viewer along effortlessly.
Rating: 7/10 – slickly, professionally made with Boyle firmly in charge and full of impressive performances, Jobs is nevertheless a movie that fails to do full justice to its central character; as a result Jobs the human being proves less interesting than Jobs the arrogant perfectionist, and any insights into the man that can be gleaned are at the expense of soap opera elements that, unfortunately, compromise his more acerbic nature.