Apple product launches often look like church revivals, with pews full of the faithful stomping their feet and raising their hands to the consecrated debut of the next object of adulation. It makes sense, then, that Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs would be constructed of three segments taking place prior to the launches of the Macintosh, the NeXT Computer and the iMac G3.
This 2015 motion picture is based on Walter Isaacson’s biography of the same name and features a screenplay by Aaron Sorkin. Depending on who is asked, the depiction of Jobs is either right on the money or wildly off the mark. Some, like journalist Walt Mossberg, criticize the story for concluding before the subject could “reel off an unprecedented string of world-changing products.”
But Steve Jobs isn’t about “world-changing products,” as evidenced from the moment the picture kicks off with the Apple co-founder (Michael Fassbender) at the 1984 launch of the Macintosh computer. There is a whirlwind backstage, with people dipping in and out with various grievances and issues. Jobs is trying to juggle it, but his explosiveness has costs.
With his ever-present marketing executive Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet) at his side, Jobs navigates issues of parentage and argues with Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen). The film advances several years, with interactions involving John Sculley (Jeff Daniels) also clouding the pre-launch environment. Jobs’ relationship with his daughter (Perla Haney-Jardine) also evolves.
Boyle does an admirable job navigating the communal lore of Jobs and the isolated turmoil. As Fassbender’s character states later in the picture, Jobs is “poorly made.” But the interstellar thrust of his products, whether developed through his innovation or the innovation of others, was and is the real machine driving the Apple tradition.
Boyle and cinematographer Alwin H. Küchler get to the heart of the matter by focusing on both the mad presentation of each product launch and the painful moral plays behind-the-scenes. The 16mm film format was used for the scenes in 1984, while 35mm was used for the 1988 scenes. This leads to the use of digital in the 1998 sequence, which errs closest to modernity.
The launches, like the products, become more sophisticated. The original Macintosh looks like a bulky box, so Jobs tucks into a bowtie and the De Anza College becomes the space for the presentation. Later, the iMac launch finds a more refined yet simple Jobs in his characteristic turtleneck and the scenes unfold at the Davies Symphony Hall.
The design of Steve Jobs is important because of how Jobs routinely hides behind design. At one point, he’s primed to launch an empty shell that he insists will be a bargaining chip down the line. And he never starts late when it comes to a presentation, plus he has to get that goddamn shark just right.
Steve Jobs is an excessive, often shouty motion picture that exhumes some dark patches while closing on the necessary messianic note. Thankfully, Fassbender is the perfect fit, swinging like Macbeth at times while still holding enough back to ebb into the passageways of his avowed brilliance. He roams close to explosiveness, a brittle and fissured ego always at the control switch.
Appropriately, the surrounding cast makes him better. Rogen puts in one hell of a turn as Wozniak, a scorned man depicted as a figure of morals. One absorbing scene finds him pleading to have the Apple 2 team acknowledged (again) and drawing a line in the sand. Being a person isn’t binary, he asserts, and the notion seems to rattle the exultant conqueror to the bone.
And Winslet is superb as Jobs’ proverbial sidekick. Hoffman serves as a compass of sorts and she’s the only human being capable of setting the man straight. Winslet embodies the intricacies of the character with an accent that sometimes falters and flickers, but this is by design. As the actress says about the real Hoffman, “she really has this accent that goes way up and down.”
It’s understandable that some may believe Steve Jobs leaves out the hero’s march to victory, but Boyle makes a very critical point by cutting things off where he does. He leaves the genius imperfect and lacking, undone by his own devices. But he leaves him hopeful, walking toward his daughter in a mist of camera flashes. He’s a figure of glory and a fallen figure of hysteria. Talk about thinking differently.