By Gabriel Renggli
Director Danny Boyle likes to experiment with dramatic structure. Take his 127 Hours, one of the more oddly captivating films made in recent years. It tells the story of a climber whose arm gets stuck under a boulder for the eponymous 127 hours. “A film about a man who cannot move,” you might say, “how can that possibly have anything to offer in narrative terms, let alone be visually interesting?” Well, leave it to Boyle to use flashbacks, hallucinations, and clever cinematography to really put you there, psychologically, in that situation. Forget about plot and physical space; it’s a film about thinking.
That’s kind of what Boyle’s most recent film, Steve Jobs, feels like, too. It’s an exploration of what a man like that might have been like to be around, both for others and for himself. It’s also a film about a man who, emotionally, found it quite difficult to move. Neither really a systematic take on Jobs’ career nor an exposé about his personal life, Steve Jobs focuses on someone who knew how to make ideas crystallise into reality: visionary and charismatic, manipulative and distrustful, not to mention fiercely guarding his privilege to have final say on just about anything.
This psychological close-up is in part achieved through an almost exclusive focus on last-minute preparations leading up to three different product launches – that of the Apple Macintosh, the NeXT Computer (Black Cube), and, finally, the iMac. Michael Fassbender, who plays Jobs with resolve, dry wit, and some obsessiveness, spends the largest portion of the film being told things like “we need to continue rehearsing now,” “we start in 20 minutes,” or “the presentation isn’t ready yet,” and responding with a mixture of zeal (“this will change the world”) and coolly articulated demands.
Don’t worry too much about whether this sounds like a factual take on things. People have criticised Boyle and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin for portraying Jobs as petty and spoilt in ways he apparently wasn’t. These reproaches somewhat miss the point that Steve Jobs is largely a film about a particular way of thinking – a way of which Jobs or, if you prefer, the myth that has been created around him, happens to be a perfect example. If Jobs is shown as a difficult person, and that is putting it nicely, my understanding is that Boyle wants to convey something about the opportunity costs of always having it your way.
This is not to say that Jobs is depicted as a complete maniac. Particularly the scenes in which he interacts with his daughter give him more depth and vulnerability than screenwriter Sorkin’s The Social Network ever attested to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. If there is a relatively recent film about technology and communication to which Steve Jobs should be compared, it is rather Frost/Nixon, which makes similarly liberal use of historical circumstances. I don’t think we are meant, in that film, to believe for one moment that the phone conversation in which Nixon goes on his rant took place in actual reality. But it perfectly serves the film’s purpose of illustrating the difference between a technological possibility (a TV interview) and its potential human impact (Nixon’s face, cracking).
Sorkin and Boyle take a similar approach to fact and fiction. If they mention at all the points you would expect a film about Jobs to cover, they zoom through them at high speed, instead zeroing in on things like why it’s important for a computer to sound friendly, and why a perfect cube is not a perfect cube. It’s an interesting structure, and one that avoids some of the major pitfalls this sort of film can easily run into. For instance, there is a point during the first launch event at which Boyle suddenly cuts to Jobs and Wozniak in their garage, arguing. But the film stays there only a few moments, circumventing the cumbersome device whereby you start in medias res but then jump back to the beginning. This is often bad storytelling, not unlike a superhero origin story that wastes time establishing the very person we already know (and came to see a film about) instead of focusing on what happens next.
Boyle does show what happened next – in fact, one thing he captures perfectly is a state of mind that is always already thinking about what to do next (once the preparations gather to a head, Boyle soon cuts away from the actual launches, refusing his audience the chance to bask in any particular moment). But as you watch, you realise that, as far as the history of personal computing is concerned, the gaps that are being filled in between what is common knowledge are fairly small here. I would not, prior to watching this film, have been able to tell you off the top of my head the names of the products we were going to see. But unless you have lived under a rock these past years, you will be familiar with Jobs’ single greatest contribution: his and our obsession with design.
So given that Steve Jobs is neither a reliable biography nor revealing any amazing new details about Apple’s history, you might wonder, what does that leave us with? The answer is: a strange, often suspenseful and intriguing, occasionally somewhat wordy film that, perhaps not coincidentally, heavily relies on the feeling it creates. If there is something off-putting about this, it isn’t the lack of plot or action, since the dialogue and cinematography of Steve Jobs are crisp enough to carry the film’s weight for most of the time. The biggest problem is arguably the underlying word-view. The Jobs we see in Boyle’s film pitches his abilities against what surrounds him. Anyone who stands in the way of his vision is fought as a personal enemy. It’s not a nice situation to be in; it’s also not a nice thing to do. The result is somewhat bleak, an emotional backdrop against which Wozniak’s words that you can be decent as well as talented have to them a slight ring of wishful thinking.
Are you likely, then, to enjoy Steve Jobs? You are likely to be disappointed if you are looking for something heavy on plot, like The Social Network (or, in a wholly different way, The Wolf of Wall Street), or for an in-depth personal biography, like The Theory of Everything. On the other hand, you might just be fascinated by Boyle’s bold take on creativity and its discontents, on the sort of personality who is good at creating an effect, an image, an atmosphere (not playing any instrument, but conducting the orchestra, is the metaphor used in the film itself), in short, on the phenomenon of fascination itself.