One of the most high-profile biopics of the year, Danny Boyle and Aaron Sorkin’s Steve Jobs seems like one of the ‘sure things’ of this year’s awards cycle. Featuring a bevy of Oscar-friendly performances, a snappy and funny screenplay with some key highlight reel Big Quotes, this account of the divisive tech figurehead is bound to feature in many of the major award categories. Yet, there is also something missing at the core of Steve Jobs and whilst the individual parts of the film are rarely less than good and quite often excellent, it doesn’t really coalesce into essential viewing. For Apple geeks, this detailed look at the rocky history of some of the company’s products would most likely make for fascinating viewing, but for everyone else, it’s an effective prestige piece that is never quite the sum of its parts.
Michael Fassbender plays the title role, the actor’s physical dissimilarity to Jobs notable but never a detraction from the performance, with Sorkin’s script – based on the book by Walter Isaacson – taking us through three different product launches overseen by Jobs. The vast majority of the runtime is made up of the last minute behind the scenes preparations for Jobs’ keynote speeches in 1984, 1988, and 1998. Sorkin chooses to have both 1984 (the Macintosh launch) and 1998 (the iMac launch) play out in pretty much real time, although 1988 (the launch of his high profile failure, the NeXT computer) is broken up by flashbacks. Undoubtedly the strongest of the three very distinct acts is the first, with the unbroken tension more than making up for the rather low stakes – it’s quite hard to get excited about whether or not a tech demo will work.
1988 and 1998 are less engaging, overestimating the audience’s interest in profit margins and marketing budgets in the former, and then falling into weirdly sentimental territory as Jobs reconnects with his now nearly-adult daughter Lisa in the latter. Given how strong the dialogue scenes between Jobs and his peers are, the exchanges between him and Lisa don’t ring particularly true, a major flaw in what should be the film’s emotional centrepiece.
All three acts are distinctly separate from one another, not just in time period, but also in energy and visuals. Whilst Boyle tones down his generally more kinetic style (his beloved Dutch angles still make some conspicuous appearances), he does allow himself one particularly effective visual flourish, in that each era is shot with a different camera. Boyle and cinematographer Alwin Kuchler shoot the 1984 sequence in 16mm, giving it a grubbier, rawer feel, then use 35mm for the operatic, betrayal-filled, second act, and then finally turning to digital for the 1998 launch, an underplayed but clear visual signal that we’ve entered the internet age. The final shot, however, is an exercise in gaudy mawkishness, and makes you suddenly yearn for the more precise hand of David Fincher, who was the studio’s first choice for this project.
Despite these uniquely cinematic touches, it sometimes feels that Steve Jobs may have worked better as a play – in a Q+A after the film, the actors mentioned that running through an act at the end of a rehearsal period felt like a stage performance. The settings are very stagey, reminiscent of last year’s Birdman in the claustrophobic environments of backstage corridors, with only one scene taking place outdoors. There is very little room to manoeuvre, which places even greater emphasis on the dialogue.
Fortunately, the brilliant cast is more than up to the task of delivering Sorkin’s writing, which can be too verbose for its own good, and conversations have a compelling rhythm to them. The supporting actors all make an instant and lasting impression, from the predictably excellent Kate Winslet and Jeff Daniels as the corporate voices of reason, to a great turn by reliable character actor Michael Stuhlbarg as software architect Andy Hertzfeld. Stuhlbarg gets the majority of the film’s laughs, with Seth Rogen taking a far less comedic role than he usually does as Steve Wozniak’s, quietly but convincingly selling the exasperation of someone both indispensable and overlooked.
None of them can steal the spotlight from their leading man, though, and Michael Fassbender is mesmerising. One of the most exciting actors working today, he proves himself yet again to be capable of projecting an almost tangible charisma. Without such an assured lead performer, you’d be left wondering why anyone should care about someone who is, most of the time, a Grade-A bastard. He can easily dominate a room both verbally and physically, and, at least in 1984, there’s something of a wild predator about him, like a less gaunt version of Jake Gyllenhaal in Nightcrawler. This is far beyond a mere impression of a famous figure, and is the first real frontrunner for the Best Actor Oscar I’ve seen this year.
It’s disappointing that the overall film can’t match its central performances, and Steve Jobs is not in the same class of quality as Sorkin’s last look at insufferable genius, the masterful Social Network. Whilst that film focused on the collapse of a friendship in an utterly riveting way, Jobs is too concerned with the product launches themselves, which aren’t very rich topics for anyone without a specific vested interest in computing history. However, most of the dialogue is as sharp and eloquent as one would hope and when Fassbender hits his stride, he becomes positively iconic in what will likely end up as one of the best performances of 2015.