Film review: Steve Jobs

David Gritten / 11 November 2015

Saga film critic David Gritten raves about ‘Steve Jobs,’ a film that offers an account of the controversial Apple co-founder’s life and career.

I’ll say it upfront: I’ve enjoyed watching Steve Jobs – twice, since you ask – more than any other film I’ve seen all year. It is  smart, exhilarating, often outrageously witty -- and wildly entertaining.

Yet it’s about a man whose area of expertise does not particularly interest me; a man who, were he still alive, I would have no desire ever to meet.

Steve Jobs is a heightened, incomplete account of the brilliant co-founder of Apple – the computer company that gave you the Macintosh, and later the iMac. Certainly, he helped revolutionise the way we live now, to an extent few others could claim. 

But he was also a dysfunctional personality, a man who could be charming, hugely charismatic and a persuasive salesman, but also cold and cruelly insensitive to the feelings of those around him. For years he callously denied paternity of Lisa, his daughter by a former girl-friend. 

A relentless pace 

I’ve long been an admirer of both British director Danny Boyle (ever since Trainspotting) and American screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network, Moneyball, TV’s The West Wing). For me, any film on which these two men pool their considerable talents would always be worthy of close attention.

Boyle gives the film its sheen, its lustre, and crucially its relentless pace. But it’s Sorkin’s words that define it. His gift for memorable dialogue is currently unsurpassed, and the words that issue from the mouths of all the characters in Steve Jobs are entrancing – especially when compared to most contemporary films.

Just don’t go to this film expecting anything like gritty realism. Many of the events depicted here actually happened, but Sorkin has moulded them into a form that serves his dramatic purposes rather than precise truth.

Apple product launches 

The film’s structure is that of a three-act play, and each ‘act’ begins some 40 minutes before a massive Apple product launch – in 1984, 1988 and 1998.  These three events were tense affairs – a positive reception to the unveiling of a new product was crucial – and in this hothouse atmosphere, half a dozen people close to Jobs, personally or professionally, choose to air their profound differences with him and his personal style or work methods.

This structure keeps the film’s tension levels perpetually taut. All three occasions feel like a tight deadline; you sense an unseen clock ticking somewhere off screen.

Jobs is played by Michael Fassbender, an increasingly remarkable actor who captures the contrasting facets of Jobs’s personality. He has protracted, angry verbal tussles with Kate Winslet (as Jobs’s long-suffering marketing director); Seth Rogen (playing Steve Wozniak, a gentler, low-key, decent man who began Apple alongside Jobs in a family garage); Jeff Daniels as John Sculley, who became Apple’s CEO and inevitably crossed swords with Jobs; and Catherine Waterston as Lisa’s indignant mother. 

But all the supporting cast here turn in remarkable performances.

A personality disorder 

It becomes apparent that Jobs was a man with some kind of narcissistic personality disorder. In one of Sorkin’s most telling lines, he explains that he doesn’t want people to dislike him – he’s indifferent to whether they dislike him.

So this isn’t a standard biopic, a cradle-to-grave account of a man’s life. 

Its heightened, theatrical quality makes it something else entirely. Anyone wishing for a factual account of Jobs’s life might seek out Alex Gibney’s notable documentary Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine.

And it’s futile to object that Sorkin and Boyle’s film spares us “the real facts.” One could say the same about The Queen, writer Peter Morgan’s account of Elizabeth II (played by Helen Mirren) in the aftermath of Princess Diana’s death. Come to that, you could say the same about all of Shakespeare’s history plays.

Instead, Steve Jobs offers us an intriguing film about a supremely gifted but deeply flawed man, and his interactions with those around him. You don’t need to care about computers or the hi-tech world to appreciate it. (I say this as a technophobe of long standing.) 

But as a study of human behaviour – admittedly in an extreme form – it makes for a pulsating two hours.

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