In 2013 there was a film made about Steve Jobs called Jobs. Ashton Kutcher played the part, and if you watch it, you can see a guy trying desperately to be taken seriously as an actor. You can see every last movement and line delivery being made by someone who knows that he’s acting and has a moment, in this film, to act. And be brilliant and finally get respect as an actor who plays a serious part.
It was simply terrible beyond words.
When you have the same story told in a different way by a great director (Danny Boyle) with one of the world’s finest screenwriters (Aaron Sorkin) and a superb cast (Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Seth Rogen, Jeff Daniels), it’s a very different kettle of fish. The problem is, though, that you’ve got a septet of immeasurable talented artists telling the same story as a cortege of hacks did a few years ago. And the premise is essentially the same: the guy who (with the help of many others) invented the Apple computer was a ground-breaking, world-changing genius, and was an immeasurably, insufferable arsehole.
When you end up watching this new, high-end story about Steve Jobs under the helm of Danny Boyle, it’s in an entirely different universe to the 2013 incarnation. It’s adapted – in part – from Walter Isaacson’s biography, by Aaron Sorkin, who structures the piece as a three-act backstage drama. In each act, Jobs (Michael Fassbender) is about to step out on stage to launch a new product in which he has some stake. Each act (1984, 1988, 1998) shows him being a prick backstage with his top marketing executive (Kate Winslet), Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen) and the Apple CEO (Jeff Daniels). In between his prickish behaviour with his colleagues, he’s a prick to his ex and his daughter, and various others in his employ or circle. The end of each act sees him walk onto a stage to thunderous applause.
Steve Jobs is a qualified success, in that it’s not a great film in itself, but it is made of several significantly great components. Director Boyle has a solid, confident visual style, and keeps things moving at a brisk pace, even when they’re bogged down talking about operating systems and microchips and whatnot. Fassbender is brilliant as Jobs; he is cold and calculating, a manipulative bastard who somehow manages to get on the wrong side of close to everyone he knows and yet succeeds, despite the fact that close to nobody in the world could possibly have the first glimmer of affection for him. Kate Winslet is first among equals as Joanna Hoffman, Jobs’ confidant and colleague who held his hand through multiple debacles (Macintosh, the NeXT ‘cube’ thing). She’s in top form here, frustrated, at wits end, yet somehow devoted to Jobs and whatever vision he has. She’s an enabler, a mafia wife, but does the job brilliantly. Seth Rogen has in Wozniak a great supporting part to play, and plays him as wounded, resentful and angry. Rogen does career-best work here. Daniels, a Sorkin veteran from three seasons on The Newsroom fits the part of Pepsi-then-Apple CEO John Sculley perfectly and is a brilliant counter-point to Fassbender’s Jobs. While the film overall is most decidedly less than the sum of its parts, its key component is its Sorkin script. Observe:
Sculley: I can’t put it more simply than this: We need to put our resources into updating the Apple II.
Jobs: By taking resources from the Mac.
Sculley: It’s failing. That’s a fact.
Jobs: It’s overpriced.
Sculley: There is no evidence…
Jobs: I’m the evidence! I’m the world’s leading expert on the Mac, John! What’s your resume?
Sculley: You’re issuing contradictory instructions, you’re insubordinate, you make people miserable, our top engineers are fleeing to Sun, Dell, HP, Wall Street doesn’t know who’s driving the bus, we’ve lost hundreds of millions in value and I’m the CEO of Apple, Steve, that’s my resume!
Jobs: But before that, you sold carbonated sugar water right? I sat in a fucking garage with Wozniak and invented the future, because artists lead and hacks ask for a show of hands.
Sculley: Alright, well… this guy’s outta control. I’m perfectly willing to hand in my resignation tonight. But if you want me to stay, you can’t have Steve. Settle him out. He can keep a share of stock so he gets our newsletter. I’d like the secretary to call for a vote.
Jobs: I fucking dare you.
Delivered with rapid fire precision, Daniels and Fassbender are superb in the scene. It’s brilliantly cut together by Boyle and Sorkin is just having a massive wordgasm all over the screen. The script is such a major player that it’s more of a Sorkin film than it is a Boyle one, and many of the scenes in each act plays out like an episode of The West Wing. To a point, it’s even distracting. Having people in fictitious settings be so smart, rapidly-spoken wits is one thing, but I can’t imagine people in the corporate world, especially the IT sector of the corporate world being so loquacious. All this amid a Sorkin trope, the ‘walk-and-talk’.
Artistic license, granted. It’s Sorkin at his best, and at the same time, at his most ‘Sorkin’. The dialogue and delivery is so very much of that mould that it is on occasion distracting. This is the strange place Steve Jobs puts you: it’s premiere selling point is also its most pronounced stumbling block. Fans will rejoice; those outside the Sorkin tent will probably cry shenanigans.
Overall, it’s a fine piece of work, brilliant cast, performed, directed and written. But it’s one which tells a tale that needn’t have been told again, and in a way which seems out of step with reality.