“It’s like five minutes before every launch, everyone goes to a bar, gets drunk, and tells me what they really think.”
This trope recurs throughout ‘Steve Jobs’. And in exceptionally Aaron Sorkin-esque style, Aaron Sorkin’s script is fully self-aware and self-referential of this. Adapted from Walter Isaacson’s book, the film is set around three launches, all for Steve Jobs’ products – the Apple Macintosh in 1984, NeXT’s Black Cube in 1988, and the Apple iMac in 1998 – with some additional flashbacks to fill in more details. And although Steve Jobs is a Danny Boyle-directed film (more on that later), it is Aaron Sorkin who is the dominant creative force.
Aaron Sorkin has previously written the script for ‘The Social Network’ (David Fincher, 2010), another film about a technology genius, in that case Facebook-founder Mark Zuckerberg. And despite admitting to not being up-to-scratch about the technology, the script here succeeds by putting that to one side, and focusing instead on the elements of screenwriting he is strongest at.
Firstly there is the presence of his archetypal quick-paced dialogue, fitting what must be a five hour screenplay into less than two. Secondly, the characters manage to find an extraordinary number of corridors to walk-and-talk their way down. And thirdly, despite all of its many problems, it’s great fun.
The nature of the three product launch structure does lead to some degree of repetition. The strictness of the temporal setting means that the film consists of a series of conversations that – with near-certainty – did not take place at the times and places as shown in the film, but can be conveniently crowbarred into the same period. And a lot of these conversations occur as shouting in theatres, during preparation for launches. Really a lot.
Similarly, there are a remarkable number of coincidences in the script. This happened all the time in The West Wing, where characters would struggle with overwhelming problems forcing them to choose between their ideals, until at the end a perfect solution would suddenly arise. Here coincidences happen in the form of characters at the later launches making references back to, and having perfect memories for, minor conversations and smalltalk that they had had ninety minutes fourteen years earlier.
Overall though, despite these elements of unbelievability, problems of coincidence, and, quite frankly, ridiculousness, it is the humour, speed, and entertainment of the script that is the driving force of the film.
In front of the camera, the performances are very good as well. Michael Stuhlbarg is notable as Andy Hertzfeld, a whipping boy for much of Steve Jobs’ anger. Kate Winslet is particularly great, albeit with an occasional accent wobble. And most remarkably, Seth Rogen is also very good as Steve Wozniak.
But, unsurprisingly, it is Michael Fassbender as Steve Jobs himself who is exceptional and holds the film together. Without a great central performance, the film could easily have faltered. But instead, due to an impeccable accent, Fassbender is almost instantly unrecognisable. He is without doubt one of the greatest actors of this generation.
One issue that I cannot comment on, is accuracy to the real-life individual portrayal, as I know nothing of the real Steve Jobs and his life. There may well be issues here, especially given Sorkin’s tendency for coincidence and convenience (see above). But the individual portrayed here is certainly a strong, well-developed, interesting one.
There is a central irony to Steve Jobs (at least, the one depicted here), that his character is one who demands that his products have ‘end-to-end control’ (that they are incompatible with other computers), and he himself is somewhat incompatible with other people. And elsewhere in the film, Sorkin delivers one of his trademark zingers that gets straight to the heart of the character when Jobs says, “the very nature of people is something to be overcome”.
Usually I spend my reviews focusing on the director’s role in the production. So far, (as you may have noticed), I have focused on Aaron Sorkin’s script. Perhaps this is because Steve Jobs is not recognisably a Danny Boyle film. But then it is very difficult to see a consistent thread, style or genre that runs throughout his films. That is, other than that they are pretty consistently great.
Here, the main task of Danny Boyle is in adapting Sorkin’s script. He does this by hamming up the script where necessary, in order to heighten its (at times) ridiculous theatricality. For example, the scene where Jobs is fired by the board of Apple takes place in a boardroom with windows on all sides and in which the electricians forgot to install any lighting, It also happens with pitch black night with heavy rain outside, and more pathetic fallacy than in the ‘Two Cathedrals’ episode of The West Wing. Yet, despite this ridiculousness, it just adds to the fun of the film.
He also puts in a very nice visual reference in one scene, in which Steve Jobs’ face is lit up by artificial light from a computer screen, referring back to David Bowie in ‘The Man Who Fell To Earth’ (Nicolas Roeg, 1976). Both characters are of touch. They don’t fit in with other humans. They have great intellect, but lack emotional intelligence. This reasoning is probably utter bollocks that I’ve made up, but it’s a nice thought nonetheless.
The film also uses different film technology for the three different periods – 16mm film for 1984, 35mm for 1988, and digital for 1998 – thus demonstrating the simultaneous development of film technology, and the technology in the film. This reasoning is probably utter bollocks that I’ve made up, but it’s a nice thought nonetheless.
The soundtrack is packed full of Bob Dylan songs. Again, I’m not sure the reasoning of this was, beyond “Bob Dylan is a genius, and so is Steve Jobs”. But it was still appreciated. In fact, the rest of the soundtrack (that isn’t provided by the new Nobel laureate), is written by Daniel Pemberton and is also very good, with its playful, exciting mood matching the tone of the script.
In the end, it is the self-reflexiveness of the script that is crucial to whether or not the film works. The answer is both. It is certainly very fun and is central entertainment to the film. However, it is also the factor that prevents the audience becoming fully immersed in the story, and the film becoming a masterpiece. Michael Fassbender is great. Danny Boyle is great. And Aaron Sorkin is Aaron Sorkin.