Aaron Sorkin and Danny Boyle reinvent the biopic with the thrilling Steve Jobs
Danny Boyle may hold the director’s credit, but Steve Jobs is an Aaron Sorkin film through and through. Like The Social Network, Sorkin tells the tale of one of the 21st century’s biggest successes through a cast of incredibly intelligent characters, clever pop culture references, and streams of rapid fire dialogue. Though Steve Jobs has the usual Sorkin downfalls (one voice for every character, every single person being a genius and a wit), it’s also one of the boldest biopics of the decade, and with the help of Boyle’s dynamic direction, it might just be the film of the year.
Much has been made of Steve Jobs’ unique structure, and it really is something only Aaron Sorkin could pull off. Rather than the usual biopic screenplay of trying to cram a person’s entire life into a two hour runtime, or focusing on a key moment, Sorkin focuses on three: 1984, as Jobs (Michael Fassbender) launches the disastrous Apple Macintosh; 1988, as a bitter Jobs competes against Apple with the NeXT; and 1998, where returning hero Jobs launches the hugely successful iMac. Slight as the plot may be, this gives Sorkin all the time in the world to engage his characters in snarky banter, intense debate, and increasingly bitter fights.
Over the 14 year span, Jobs repeatedly confronts the same faces. Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), Jobs’ neglected partner in the early days, only asks for a small bit of credit for him and his team. Steve’s ex, Chrisann (Katherine Waterson), initially wanting an admittance that he’s the father of their daughter (played over the years by Perla Haney-Jardine, Ripley Sobo and Makenzie Moss; all are wonderful), then trying to get more money to raise her. Most painfully of all, perhaps, is John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), Jobs’ former mentor who ends up betraying him, at least in Jobs’ eyes. The only person Steve doesn’t fall out with over the course of the film is his long suffering confidant Joanna Huffman (Kate Winslet), but that doesn’t stop them from bickering like an old married couple.
It’s no surprise to learn the characters are fluent in ‘Sorkinese’; what does come as a surprise is Danny Boyle’s directing. Steve Jobs is easily his most grown up and mature film, and it’s interesting to see him retain his usual flair and energy in a more mannered, less ‘show off’-y way. There are still hints and flashes of the youthful Boyle who made Shallow Grave and Trainspotting (fast cuts depicting the year and location fill the screen with swarms of eager tech geeks, a year-spanning montage set to the Libertines), but the camera moves are more controlled now, the music more civilised. In many ways, it’s similar to David Fincher’s directing on The Social Network (Boyle compared the two, saying The Social Network is a “sitting down movie” and Steve Jobs is a “walking around movie”); as the original man for the job, it’s interesting to wonder how Fincher’s take on the same material would have turned out. Boyle is certainly warmer, and it’s easy to believe that some of the emotion and familial problems later in the film would have been removed entirely under Fincher’s helm.
You’d be hard pressed to find a better ensemble cast in 2015 than Steve Jobs; I counted at least three performances deserving of Oscar nominations. In one of his only dramatic roles, Seth Rogen gives a touching and humane performance Wozniak, a man far too nice to have associated with Jobs in the first place. It’s not that much difference from the usual Rogen performance; a big cuddly guy cracking jokes and trying to be friends with everyone. The difference here is that Wozniak has a reason to stop being friendly, as he realises that Jobs’ ego has given him delusions that he alone was responsible for his success. As the brains behind the operation, Wozniak demands more recognition (“I‘m tired of being Ringo when I know I’m John!” is just one of his many fantastic lines), and it’s pretty tragic seeing him constantly deflated by the smarmy Jobs.
Jeff Daniels, presumably cast at the suggestion of The Newsroom creator Sorkin, gives another excellent portrayal of an initially harder-to-like character. John Sculley is straight talking and the only person Jobs seems to have respect for, at least in the early days. Initially a father figure for Jobs (a recurring theme throughout the film is Jobs’ feeling of rejection at being adopted), Sculley becomes his worst enemy after casting the decision to remove Jobs from the Apple corporation. Daniels portrays Sculley as a decent man trying to negotiate with someone he will never truly understand, and he’s really terrific, the highlight of the film’s best scene, in which we see why Jobs left Apple. It’s not a showy performance, or one likely to be recognised by awards ceremonies, but Daniels wears the character like a glove and makes it look easy.
It’s been a few years since Kate Winslet has been in anything major (possibly not since her Academy Award winning turn in The Reader), so it’s nice to see she uses this opportunity wisely, playing the no-bullshit Joanna Huffman. With an Eastern European accent and a consistently worried face, Winslet plays Huffman as tough but not brittle, easily manipulated by Jobs but sturdy when she needs to be. A fairly obvious Oscar contender for Best Supporting Actress, it’s her best performance since Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, an absolutely terrific performance with a lot of heart and determination behind it.
Of course, you can’t talk about Steve Jobs without talking about the leading man himself. Ford On Film’s favourite actor Michael Fassbender gives a solid contender for the greatest performance of his career as the titular tech pioneer, no easy feat after Shame. The best biopic performances avoid caricature to reveal the layers beneath the real person. Fassbender many not look much like Jobs, at all really (apart from 1998, when his grey wig and turtleneck are surprisingly convincing), but he nails the soft-but-sharp voice, the quietly intense stares, the inner rage at having nobody appreciate his genius.
It’s a tremendously difficult performance because Jobs is barely even an antihero; he’s the villain of the film for long stretches, whether being immensely cruel to his young daughter, snide and condescending to his struggling ex (he lets her and their daughter sleep in a freezing house while he’s worth millions in Apple stock), or an utter twat to those who helped him get where he is. In Fassbender’s hands, however, he allows Jobs to remain human, in his fun interactions with his tech manager (Sarah Snook, of Predestination fame), his surprisingly modest nervousness before his first launch, or, nicest of all, the scenes of him being a genuinely good father in 1988, imploring his daughter to go to school. Steve Jobs’ disappointing box office takings may scupper his chances, but I really hope Fassbender finally gets a Best Actor nod at the Oscars. He’s unlikely to win (this is Leo’s year, isn’t it?), but he deserves some recognition for his world class performance here.
Clearly, Steve Jobs’ dense, wordy screenplay, somewhat unglamorous setting, and flawed central character isn’t for everybody, hence its disappointment at the box office. However, much like The Social Network before it, the film makes what could be a dry, dull biopic into a thrilling, fast paced opera of blazing, intelligent dialogue and constantly moving cameras. With the best supporting cast of the year and, in Fassbender, one of the world’s finest actors at the top of his game (between this, Macbeth, and Slow West, Fassbender had a hell of a 2015), Steve Jobs would be worth watching for acting alone. Because of Aaron Sorkin’s stunning screenplay and Danny Boyle’s brilliant underplayed direction, Steve Jobs is one of the classiest films of the year.
By Harry Ford