‘So the whole thing will be backstage at a conference centre, during the half hour before a computer hardware launch, three times.’ It’s not the most compelling pitch for a Hollywood movie you’re ever going to hear, but it worked for Universal, who acquired the latest take on the Apple co-founder after Sony dumped it following various casting problems. Michael Fassbender eventually slipped on the dark turtleneck, where Christian Bale and Leonardo DiCaprio had passed, with Aaron Sorkin writing and Danny Boyle in the director’s chair. The result is exciting, pacy, and well-acted, but slightly lightweight and unsatisfying in a way that makes you wonder why the filmmakers handcuffed themselves the way they did.
We pick up Jobs’ story as he gets ready to launch the Mac in 1984, following Ridley Scott’s bombastic Superbowl advert. Jobs has conversations with his marketing manager, Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), co-founder Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), Apple CEO John Sculley (Jeff Daniels),developer Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg), his daughter Lisa (various actors of different ages) and her mother Chrisann (Katherine Waterston). These are Aaron Sorkin Conversations™, walk-and-talks whereby Fassbender strides towards the retreating camera while somebody chases him. We get to the moment Jobs is onstage, about to launch something, and then…we cut to the next pre-launch merry-go-round, at which the same ghosts-of-Apple-past turn up and have the same conversation with the same person, in the same way. We don’t actually see the launches, we don’t really see any inventing, we don’t see any customers using the products, and we don’t see anything post-1998 (meaning no iPhones, no iPods, and no point at which Apple was anything like the $741bn monolith it is today). Steve Jobs’ character and history are revealed to us in passing in these three moving Q and As.
These self-imposed structural limitations show the confidence and talent that Sorkin has: few other pairings than Sorkin and Danny Boyle at his high-energy best could turn what really should be a play into a toe-tapping popcorn-guzzler. At the same time, these limitations speed along the move from ‘artistic licence’ to ‘absolute hokum’. I don’t mean that as an insult – this is a film set in corridors and empty rooms that consists only of conversations, and yet it’s exciting, fast-moving, and occasionally thrilling. But it’s not remotely ‘the story of Steve Jobs’. It’s a story featuring a character called Steve Jobs who has the same conversation with the same few people three times, several years apart. A character who talks pretty much exclusively in cod-philosophy or inspirational jargon (‘The very nature of people is something to be overcome!’ … ‘I sat in a garage and invented the future because artists lead and hacks ask for a show of hands!’). A character who doesn’t find anything strange in a man showing up out of his past and immediately re-starting an awkward conversation about adoption that they never finished ten years prior. To be clear, it’s all very entertaining – but not remotely authentic.
Fassbender is reliably excellent, though it feels odd that this will be his best Oscar shout to date. Rolling Stone called his performance one of ‘savage wit and limitless firepower’, which (sorry, Rolling Stone) is insane. It’s not that Fassbender isn’t talented or engaging enough to deliver such a performance – of course he is. See Hunger, or Shame, or his recent, intensely magnetic Macbeth from Justin Kurzel. But Steve Jobs is a surface-level look at a mercurial guy who spends 90 minutes telling everyone he’s right and they’re wrong because he’s a genius. There’s just not much room in what Sorkin’s written for the kind of revelation that would make this a performance for the ages. There’s also a weird Alice-Eve-in-Star-Trek moment where Jobs asks Hoffmann why they’ve never slept together, which seems to have been tossed in because Sorkin suddenly remembered that people like heroes to have love lives. They gloss over it and get back to the walking and talking.
By way of comparison, The Social Network is probably the closest analogue – also a Sorkin-penned drama about tech billionaires – and while it may have been lost in the David Fincher gloss applied to that film, there was at least a sense that there was some kind of message about friendship, technology, isolation and alienation trying to poke its way to the surface. With Steve Jobs I’m not sure that there is, except, hey, mercurial geniuses are complicated people. This sounds like it’s a bad film, and I want to be clear that it’s not – I love Aaron Sorkin (give me five minutes of his dialogue versus an hour from Tarantino), Michael Fassbender is terrific, Danny Boyle is the greatest living Lancastrian, the supporting cast are all superb and the film entertains. It’s all just a bit superficial, a bit of a B minus, and by clipping its structural wings the way they did, the filmmakers have prevented it from ever really flying.
Steve Jobs in cinemas UK nationwide from 13th November 2015. For more information, visit the website.