The Underappreciated Art of Danny Boyle’s 2015 Biopic ‘Steve Jobs’

In honour of Michael Fassbender’s latest box office bomb, The Snowman, I felt the need to revisit a lesser loved film from a couple of years back, Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs. Without indulging in hyperbole, Boyle created one of the most underappreciated films of 2015 with the latest rendition of Steve Jobs’ personal and professional life. Wearing the filmmaker’s trademark sentimentality, Steve Jobs feels as though it belongs on a stage, and ironically at times its purely cinematic moments are where it doesn’t quite reach the heights of its dynamic, bouncy narrative.

The film is essentially a series of one-on-one interactions with a handful of exceptions, and at times, towards the end, it feels as though elements are introduced early on for the sole purpose of circling back to them. This is where its sentimentality probably brightens the light on Jobs a little too much, though Boyle never forgets that Jobs was, as many of the characters like to make clear, an insufferable man.

But he was a genius, and that’s not forgotten either. His social shortcomings were, in his mind at least, made up for by his intelligence. Though, as Wozniak (Seth Rogen) states late in the film, “you can be decent and gifted at the same time.” The film is so simply structured that it’s easy to keep up with the change in each act. It’s broken up into three launch events, and the film, apart from a couple of awkward montages, takes place almost entirely backstage (not unlike 2014’s Birdman). Here, behind the curtains, we follow Jobs from room to room, interacting with the same handful of people in a series of sequences, and each one plays as a foil for a different facet of Jobs’ personality.

It offers a straight forward lesson in creating a film, gifting students of the medium a chance to easily break down the central character and his relationship with both the plot and his supporting characters. But this isn’t just a film ripe for study, it’s also, a joy to watch the film unfold. Michael Fassbender provides an astounding performance as the titular character, whose growth may have sped forward rather rapidly though in no short way is that a result of the span of years that the film takes place over. Watching the character evolve over time is thrilling, though that development is charted unevenly at times, and leads to a fulfilling ending that at the same time feels as though something was missed.

The film has trouble filling in the gaps between the years, so that when Jobs meets with his nineteen-year old daughter in the final act, the rift in their relationship is jarring. When last we saw his daughter, she embraced him and proclaim her wish to live with him, the next we see she has grown distant toward him. It makes sense contextually but dramatically it jolts. The mother herself is near insufferable, understandable in her anguish but not at all supportable in her choices and demands. There’s logic there, but not in the way the character delivers it.

The implementation of time as a ticking bomb works, using it to add a sense of haste to each interaction as we count down towards that act’s product launch. The film distorts time in these instances, though it’s unclear whether it intentionally extends the time Jobs has before the launch begins, (ten minutes turns into at least twenty in most instances, but it’s never approached with any consequence).

The magic in Steve Jobs is how it shows a man who is deeply flawed, obsessive, and lacking in fundamental psychological principles (like how to interact with those around him appropriately, as well as a lack of compassion), and yet it is these problems that forwarded his genius. “The very nature of people is something to be overcome,” he proclaims at one point during the film. His faith in technology feeds his lack of it in humanity. To him, humans are flawed, errors that his computers should never have. Steve Wozniak in a heated moment (one of many) says to a young, visionary Jobs, “Computers aren’t supposed to have human flaws. I’m not going to build this one with yours.”

Writer Aaron Sorkin absolutely nails his always energetic dialogue and lets the film run with it. Each recurring character angles in on Jobs to provide a complete study of its subject. With Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), the woman with everything to do with the man, it was ultimately about family but also about her place in the middle of all of his conflicts. She was the calm center of his universe, the one person he could rely on. With John Scully (Jeff Daniels), it was about power and control and the things they could have done together. There’s a somber tone to their final confrontation, and while their midpoint row was heated and fittingly high stakes, it’s meshed with a flashback involving the same two characters that results in a clunky, complicated series of messy ideologies.

His daughter ultimately reveals Jobs’ humanity, but this particular resolution feels too committed to giving the character the proper send-off, rather than conveying a natural growth which is unfortunate, considering the stellar work done between father and daughter as the young girl grew up in the middle of a deeply affecting domestic complication. The rolling formula of interactions that shapes the film could have easily felt stale by the end of act two, but miraculously it doesn’t.

Instead, it’s riveting. Each sequence forwards Steve Jobs the man and Steve Jobs the visionary, or else it peels back a layer to show the flaws for all to see. Whether it sacrifices accuracy for the sake of its backstage formula (three separate, integral moments throughout Jobs’ career) is arguably something we can shrug off. This is a film, not a documentary, though that excuse has certainly been wrung dry particularly in an age where true-story fiction can often be more enthralling than fiction-from-scratch.

Steve Jobs self-titles himself the conductor of his orchestra, and the film makes no effort to hide its beautifully rendered soundtrack, which transitions from digital to orchestral when it pleases. Often its orchestral sounds drive conflict, while digital tends to build towards them. What it creates is a uniformly satisfying pattern, fitting comfortably with the narrative formula.

Boyle’s film was a surprise, though what’s most disappointing about its limited lifespan at the box office was perhaps its timing. We’ve seen films come back from the dead at home video release, and this is one that has the makings of a long shelf life. Steve Jobs is a film so basic in its structure, and yet so riveting in its execution, that all involved should be proud of the final product. Ultimately, the film achieved exactly what Jobs wanted so badly the MacIntosh to do at that very first launch. It said hello, but few said hello back. But, just like Steve Jobs’ late career flourish, these things are better late than never.

Film ‘89 Verdict – 8/10

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