There is something very brave about the intensity of the Danny Boyle-directed biopic on Steve Jobs, the co-founder of Apple Inc, and something equally brave about the relentless portrayal of the man as a complete schmuck.
With few exceptions, in any form of storytelling from comic books to opera, it is a standard litmus test that the audience at least find something likable about the main characters. Sympathy is more palatable than loathing. But Boyle doesn’t allow much of that. His Steve Jobs, played magnificently by Michael Fassbender, is a bastard who threatens his staff, gives thanks to no-one and ignores his daughter, Lisa, and one-time partner Chrisann Brennan, even when they are living on welfare and he is earning millions.
More than that, despite Jobs’ ability to look serene even in the midst of an argument, he goes at people like a bulldozer burning rocket fuel. His handler over a 19-year stretch, Joanna Hoffman, played by Kate Winslet, helps tremendously both from a personal point of view and a dramatic one, given we need someone up there on the screen to like, even just a little.
The script is cleverly staged, jumping from one product launch to another, which allows for it to focus on the next Apple innovation without seeming like it is going out of its way to do so. It also gives Jobs ample opportunity to wax prophetic with tiresome statements like “we are inventing the future.”
Meanwhile, without fail, about 30 minutes before Jobs is to glide on stage and make his pitch, there is room for at least four revved up arguments with various key players. This version of Jobs is all but Shakespearean in his capacity for alienating people. His consistent targets are Apple engineer Andy Hertzfeld, played by Michael Stuhlbarg, and company co-founder Steve Wozniak, played by Seth Rogan. His relationship with his daughter, Lisa, is also mind-numbingly cold.
Jobs is kinder to John Sculley, played by Jeff Daniels, the chief executive officer at Apple from 1983 to 1993, whom he sees as a father figure. They have almost heartfelt conversations, which is as close to bread and butter humanity as Jobs ever gets.
Meanwhile, at the end of each round of arguments, Jobs gets to walk on stage, where he is greeted by the crowd as if he were Mick Jagger. Does this means we are supposed to hate him, but admire him, anyway? If so, what are we admiring him for?
Jobs cultivated a messianic brand for himself. If he hadn’t found himself as the world’s No. 1 high-tech guru, he would probably have been a guru, anyway. The sad truth is that you need inventors and salesmen to change the world and the one who gets to be the executive is invariably the salesman, because he understands profits. That business model rarely changes over the ages.
But this movie is also trying to sell us something. Since Jobs was seen as the billionaire hippy, Boyle sells us Jobs with references to Bob Dylan, whom Jobs apparently admired, and the late John Lennon, who is flashed in a montage at the end of the picture. But I worry about the product placement here, the subliminal suggestion that Jobs deserves his cult-like status.
Still, this biopic fires on all cylinders. While the “Ghosts Of Arguments Past” feel to the picture seems canned in places, I still give the script at least five stars. The casting is simply as good as it gets. The acting is superb. And Boyle, who gave us Slumdog Millionaire, appears to be a director who can throw a fastball through nine innings without getting tired. All in all, this picture is terrific — even mercilessly so.