The most successful films about non-fictional figures tend to focus not on their entire lives, but rather a part of them. A tight focus means that a story doesn’t get bogged down under extraneous facts that don’t matter in the now on the screen. Steve Jobs is a movie composed, essentially, of three scenes — and they’re scenes so constructed that the sheer factuality of it all doesn’t strictly matter. This is verbose drama about a cult icon that shows both his following and his intense acidity.
Steve Jobs follows the launches of three products across 14 years. Before each launch speech, Jobs (Michael Fassbender, Macbeth) meets with key figures in his work and life and either settles or sets off blood feuds with each of them. Guided by marketing manager Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet, The Dressmaker), Jobs negotiates encounters with ex-lover Chrisann (Katherine Waterston, Sleeping with Other People), his daughter Lisa (Makenzie Moss, Ripley Sobo, and Perla Haney-Jardine), Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen, The Night Before), and Apple CEO John Sculley (Jeff Daniels, The Martian).
Those familiar with the work of Aaron Sorkin (TV’s The Newsroom) will instantly recognise Steve Jobs as his work. There is an intense amount of dialogue in the script, and a lot of it is delivered while walking; the entire movie feels like a construct rather than a naturalistic representation of events as they were. This works because Steve Jobs never asks to be taken literally. It has the flavour of factuality without the delivery of same, and it is much more satisfactorily received that way.
Stylistically, director Danny Boyle (TV’s Babylon) has split the film’s three eras across three stocks and each brings a completely different feel to the piece. The rare moments of informative typography are perfectly matched to their timeframe, and there are staggering amounts of pristine Apple and NeXT products and promotional materials on stage.
The script and direction sing best together in the scenes between Jobs and Sculley, executed in the “modern day” and flashbacks run side by side. Pitch black rain elevates a scene of Steve Jobs to a level of high drama that it doesn’t otherwise showcase, but it feels earned regardless. Boyle and Sorkin take a person who has become almost mythologised in the years since his death and have shown both the idolatry that was heaped upon him — even when he was consciously not doing his best work — and the fierce and sometimes insensitive passions that drove him.
The performances never descend into caricature or impersonation. Fassbender looks far less like Jobs than Ashton Kutcher did in 2013’s Jobs, but he inhabits the role as well as he does any other; that he can sell the dangerously heavy sentimentality of the final stretch of the father/daughter drama of the script speaks volumes of his talent. Winslet exhibits a pragmatic warmth as Hoffman, though her accent is occasionally wonky. The rest of the cast put in fine turns, particularly the three incarnations of Lisa, and established Sorkin veteran Daniels.
Steve Jobs is a successful movie largely by virtue of its artifice. A character drama told almost exclusively through the wings and dressing rooms of a series of theatres, this is a surprisingly artful film. Though it will undoubtedly mean more to people somewhat intimately familiar with Apple’s history, Steve Jobs is a nevertheless affecting piece of cinema that never attempts to canonise its subject matter.
Steve Jobs opened in Australian cinemas on February 4, 2016.
Directed by: Danny Boyle.
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Katherine Waterston, Mackenzie Moss, Ripley Sobo, Perla Haney-Jardine, Seth Rogen and Jeff Daniels.