Unlike most Hollywood films, the most remarkable aspect of Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs is undoubtedly its style. Narrative, characters, and even the themes of the film all play second fiddle to the distinct styles of Boyle and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin. And still, Steve Jobs avoids the “form over substance” trap through splendid performances and a powerful story of family amid the backdrop of Jobs’ unique innovative spirit. The result is a film which we appreciate both for what it has to say, and the means in which it speaks.
The most evident stylistic choices involve the structure of the narrative – both from an overall organization standpoint, and then on a scene-by-scene basis as well. The three acts of the story each dramatize a short period of time before a major product launch in Steve Jobs’s career: the Apple Macintosh computer in 1984, the NeXT Computer in 1988, and the iMac in 1998. Boyle adds a magnificent flourish to these three periods by shooting them with improving technologies: act I was shot in 16mm, act II in 35mm, and the final act on digital cameras. Thus as the picture becomes crisper in front of our eyes, we subconsciously experience the kinds of technological improvements which were so often championed by Jobs himself.
And within each act, Sorkin’s voice is unmistakable. The “walk-and-talks” and rapid-fire repartee are on full display here, so if that kind of storytelling irks you, you may be in for a long haul with this film. Most of the drama involves the characters scrambling for various reasons before the presentation, but occasionally involves flashbacks between two characters. The common thread through each pre-show jitter is Jobs’ daughter (who he is quick to deny paternity of), and the most identifiable arc is that of Jobs maturing into a more reasonable person – mostly with respect to fatherhood. And, while some hatchets are buried by 1998, others are not.
Finally, while Boyle and Sorkin leave their respective marks throughout the film, it would be remiss not to marvel at the cast they had to work with. Michael Fassbender continues to be marvelous in his portrayal of Steve Jobs. He eschews any kind of surface-level makeup or alteration to appear more like Jobs and instead simply acts like Jobs by imitating his forceful personality. This is precisely contrary to the approach Johnny Depp took in an effort to play Whitey Bulger (where Depp used blue contacts and a balding wig), and I fathom that it is easier to lose yourself in a performance than it is to lose yourself in an appearance.
The supporting actors are all similarly fantastic, providing us with one of the great dramatic ensembles of the past few years. The story leans hardest on Kate Winslet as marketing executive Joanna Hoffman, who serves as Jobs’ only true confidant in the film. She is perhaps the only character in the film who successfully stands up to Jobs, and whom he views as an absolute equal. Seth Rogan as Steve Wozniak attempts similar acts of bravado throughout the film, but his one-note plea is always rebuffed. Still, Rogan perhaps provides the thesis of the film most clearly during a walk-out late in the third act: “It isn’t binary; you can be a genius and treat people well at the same time”. And, for the second major release this month, Jeff Daniels again excels as the head of a major corporation / body (here he is CEO of Apple, in The Martian he was head of NASA). We are also treated to great minor work by the actresses portraying Jobs’ daughter Lisa ( Perla Haney-Jardine, Ripley Sobo, and Makenzie Moss) and we have a Sarah Snook sighting as Andrea Cunningham, the manager of the Mac launches (remember, she was “The Unwed Mother” in Predestination, which you should see).
Ultimately, there is just too much craft and talent assembled in Steve Jobs to grade the film poorly. Sometimes the ideas of bettering humanity through the improvement of technology have to fight with those of the importance of fatherhood and those pertaining to our fascination with the magnanimous genius, and this leaves the film a little muddled thematically. But one would be hard-pressed to find fault with the performances, Sorkin’s respectful but script, or Boyle’s direction and camera choices. Thus Steve Jobs manages to strike a perfect balance between reality and legend, a continuum on which most biopics fall woefully off-target.