Steve Jobs review: a quasi-biopic of an unremittingly monstrous personality

With a brilliant script from Aaron Sorkin, elegant design and ruthless discipline mark out Danny Boyle’s unexpectedly impressive film. Steve Jobs may have approved

Steve Jobs
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Director: Danny Boyle
Cert: 15A
Genre: Drama
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Seth Rogen, Jeff Daniels, Michael Stuhlbarg, Katherine Waterston, Sarah Snook, Adam Shapiro, Makenzie Moss
Running Time: 2 hrs 2 mins

Who were those clapping seals who fell for the messianic zeal of Steve Jobs? I admit to liking the things he made. This sentence was finished on a machine manufactured by the company Jobs co-founded. But the revivalist fervour with which acolytes greeted his product launches would have defied the satirical powers of Aldous Huxley. It has a new handle! Aaaah! I’ve wet myself.

Aaron Sorkin and Danny Boyle, writer and director of this unexpectedly impressive quasi-biopic, have wrestled a quandary into something like submission. The film is highly suspicious of the cult of personality. Yet it would not exist without it. Nobody wants to watch a movie about the founder of Ever Ready or the man who invented the disposable razor. Think how hard Sorkin had to work to get us interested in the less-than- electrifying Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network.

The film-makers have wriggled their way free by making a picture that is not really about Steve Jobs. Distance is established immediately by casting Michael Fassbender – who could hardly look less like Jobs if he were a woman – as the irritable, obsessive title character. Late in the film, we meet the adopted Jobs’s birth father and we find ourselves wondering how a Syrian man managed to sire such an unmistakably European head.

The details of the story are plucked from Walter Isaacson’s biography of Jobs, but Boyle and Sorkin have created a heightened version of Jobs and placed him in a pointedly artificial take on the real world. Jobs grasped where the technology was going, but he is still, perhaps, best celebrated for his insistence on beautiful design. He would, thus, surely have admired the elegant structure that Sorkin has imposed on his witty screenplay.

Steve Jobs takes place behind the scenes at three product launches (as we have already noted, secular masses to the Cult of Steve). The first, in 1984, brings the first Apple Macintosh to the world. The second, in 1988, finds Jobs, recently sacked from his own company, flogging the ultimately doomed NeXT Computer. The final act takes us to the unveiling of the iMac in 1998. Where are the iPhone, the iPod and the iPad? Where is the examination of Jobs's decline from cancer? Nowhere here. The late mogul would also have admired Sorkin's ruthless discipline.

At each event, Jobs encounters associates and advisors plucked from the same small group. Jeff Daniels is unexpectedly sympathetic as Jeff Sculley, the former Pepsi Cola president who edged Jobs out of Apple. Katherine Waterston is decent, if flaky, as the mother of Steve’s intermittently acknowledged daughter. Kate Winslet, despite a meandering Polish accent, securely anchors every scene as Joanna Hoffman, the marketing assistant who, almost alone, was allowed to say “no” to Jobs. Seth Rogen is perfectly cast as the legendarily decent Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak.

What we have, in short, is the script for a brilliant three-act play. Boyle is to be hugely congratulated for suppressing his taste for cinematic bravado and allowing the drama to play out at its own pace. The only conspicuous visual flourish (aside from one weirdly explicit illustration of an anecdote about Skylab) is to use different stock for each act: in 1984 we enjoy the 16mm then used for TV programmes; in 1988 we savour 35mm; in 1998 we look to the future with digital imagery.

Having left the ghastly sentimentality of the West Wing behind, Sorkin revels in constructing vicious barbs for an almost unremittingly monstrous personality. Fassbender spits the dialogue with a ferocity that seems no less savage for the character's smug informality. Sadly, the film does lose its nerve a little in the final moments and allows Jobs a degree of redemption. It's better than we could have hoped, for all that.

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist