Rarely do I find a Danny Boyle film, or an Aaron Sorkin script, uninteresting. However the bravura and bravado of them in tandem on Steve Jobs** creates an oddly soulless vacuum of a movie. To give you my gut reaction: I just didn’t give a monkeys.
Although I write this on an Apple and am synced to the high gills across all their gadgety junk, I have no love of any of it or their enforced product loyalty. So this may of course be influencing my total apathy toward the design and marketing guru who turned the unveiling of new computers and tech products into international events that adherents seem to put on a par with, say, Live Aid, or the Sermon on the Mount.
Yet the film doesn’t really examine this phenomenon, the slavish devotion of fans or the insidious creep of technology and consumerism the industry is propagating. Now that might have been interesting. No, it focuses instead on the man, Steve Jobs, as played (very impressively and mostly unlikeably) by Michael Fassbender.
But the schematic structure bravely cuts through biopic convention and zones in on just three episodes in Jobs’s life, as he prepares for three product launches: the Apple Man in 1984, the NeXT in 1988 and the iMac in 1998. We check in with his various co-workers and partners who spar with him verbally in the trusted Sorkin style, often walking and talking, or just pit-pattering back and forth until revealing a dramatic truth at the end of their scene.
Only this time, unlike in Sorkin’s TV shows such as The West Wing or Newsroom (or the undervalued Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip – very worth checking out), the action doesn’t gain forward momentum. Nor is there much actual drama.
I think the film fails because there’s an unresolved creative conflict here. Boyle, we can assume, is a old-fashioned left-winger at heart, but he is nevertheless obsessed with money in his films. From Shallow Grave, to Millions, to Slumdog Millionaire and Trance, his characters are after quick routes to their fortunes. If it’s not money, they’re seeking immediate ecstasy in Sunshine or in the drugs of Trainspotting or in the paradise of The Beach.
Steve Jobs doesn’t have that usual Boyle trajectory and it leaves a hole in the heart of this picture. Indeed, Sorkin has previously written admiringly of a tech billionaire in The Social Network but it seems to me both creators here, Boyle and Sorkin, can’t work out where they stand on Jobs’ ‘noble’ dream of dominating a marketplace with product. I don’t think Boyle, in particular, has much else than grudging respect for his lead character and that’s what comes across – it’s hardly a starting point for great movie-making.
Did Steve Jobs really change the world? Is he really as important as all the icons he invokes in his Think Different campaign, such as Einstein and Miles Davis? I don’t think so and this film certainly doesn’t convince me that he is. Nor does it make me care about him particularly as a human being or a great mind. He’s a ruthlessly driven and obsessive businessman, but that doesn’t make him a hero. Or a villain. He’s just good at his job, which is selling stuff, and being rude to people.
Boyle, I suspect, can’t square this with his essentially big-hearted, generous nature. But I think he should have had the strength to be more critical, more sceptical. Isn’t all the Apple product and constant stream of demanding tech upgrades exactly the kind of stuff Renton lists and satirises in the Choose Life speech at the beginning of Trainspotting?
When director and screenplay aren’t pulling together, the film doesn’t add up for me, no matter how well Fassbender plays it.