Steve Jobs (2015) Film Review: “I play the orchestra.”

Steve Jobs became something of a cultural force, a phenomenon, a man who changed advertising and branding forever.

He injected a sense of artistry into his work, and drove Apple to become an aspirational lifestyle brand.

Jobs wrested control of computing, taking it from the hands of geeks, and placing it in the hands of the everyday people.

He changed the paradigm forever.

We view Jobs as an innovator, a revolutionary, and his brand is inextricably tied to people like Bob Dylan, Gandhi, and even Alan Turing.

The most interesting thing about Jobs is that he crafted and defined his own legacy. He was the first, and likely the most successful, content curator, building an image around the work that other people did.

Jobs was no Saint

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Beautiful aesthetics in Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs.

Jobs is lauded for his professional work, but, according to Danny Boyle’s latest film, a lot of what we know about the man is simply myth, legend, and not entirely true.

Starring Michael Fassbender as Steve Jobs, Boyle’s film is focussed, framed by product launches, shot in back rooms away from the limelight.

It’s in the shadows that Jobs’ true character emerges. Egotistical, selfish, driven, and frequently cruel – Boyle doesn’t paint a flattering picture of the man.

John Lennon, when viewed in retrospect, was a sexist who was violent towards women, Gandhi was a racist, and now Jobs is denigrated in a similar manner. Does the truth always out? Or would we find similar skeletons in anyone’s closet if we looked closely enough?

Let There Be…An Advert

The opening sequences of Steve Jobs show a man on the brink of potential success, or overwhelming failure. Set just before the Macintosh launch of 1984, the opening moment establish Jobs’ distinctive eye for branding. His iconic advert, shot with the help of skinheads, led to considerable hype and anticipation about his talking computer.

In Boyle’s depiction of Jobs there’s an immediate sense that this isn’t the man that we all know (and love). He treats his employees poorly, he’s an awful father, and he treats women badly.

These early moments also establish that this is a Danny Boyle film. The composition is simple and restrained, with slow and controlled camera work and subtle editing. The focus is on the characters within the shots, and style never impacts on substance.

And this simplicity reflects Jobs’ perspective on computers. He wants them to be accessible, he wants artistic control, and he wants his products to be seen as fun, cool, and exciting.

“Hollywood – they made computers scary things. It needs to say hello.”

Boyle’s film, although clearly his, also borrows stylistically from Birdman. Both films use a similar sort of tension between the back stage life of performers, and the perspective that audiences get. It’s an effective narrative approach, and it works well with Steve Jobs.

Innovation, Creativity, and Aspiration

For most of us, we only saw Jobs’ big budget publicised moments. He became a cult hero, an iconic figure, and we associated his branding with ideas of innovation, creativity, and aspiration. Those values sold products, but they distanced us from the man.

In many ways Jobs is a MacBook Pro, he is an iPod or an iPhone, and Boyle works hard to strip away these cultural trappings to reveal the man at the heart of it. Fassbender rises to the occasion too with a considered and nuanced performance of a man few of us have truly seen before.

“Go make a dent in the universe, Steve.”

Jobs aspired to make products that changed the world forever. But his personal life wasn’t as successful. He became estranged from his daughter, he treated her mother with suspicion, at times refusing to help her out financially, yet he became a well loved and respected cultural icon for everyone else.

It’s in this sort of uneasy ephemeral understanding of Jobs that Boyle’s film finds plenty of scope for an intricate character study. 

A Well Rounded Character Study

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Seth Rogen as Steve Wozniak in Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs.

I enjoyed Seth Rogen’s performance in the film. Similar to Jonah Hill (True Story, The Wolf of Wall Street), he’s moving away (to some extent) from his noughties frat pack roots, into bigger budget drama. And he’s good, too.

Seth Rogen plays Steve Wozniak, and his performance is thoughtful, and well contrasted with Fassbender’s Jobs. The pair started Apple together, from a garage (as all 20th century tech legends go), but their perspectives couldn’t be more different.

Wozniak argues for open source computing, Jobs for a closed ecosystem. Wozniak tells Jobs that ‘Computers aren’t paintings.’ Jobs tells Wozniak that they are.

Jobs created a brand, an identity, and products that could be sold, marketed, and turned into huge profits. Wozniak however was a purist, he saw the utilitarian potential in the products he made, rather than the aspirational lifestyle brand that Jobs wanted to create.

The Man Behind The Art

But instead of focusing on this conflict, Boyle separates Jobs from his mythologising, finding the man behind the art. Jobs might well have created branding that stuck, he might well have personified computers, but it all came at a cost. His personal life suffered, and in many ways he had to be a monster to drive the people around him to succeed.

“Go fuck yourself. My name is Steve Jobs and the times they are a changin’”

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Jeff Daniels as John Scully.

Jeff Daniels plays John Sculley, a corporate man who from Jobs perspective, danced to an old fashioned tune. He prized profits over innovation, something that Steve Jobs couldn’t tolerate.

Daniels is excellent in Boyle’s film, adding a great supporting turn to an already stellar cast. Marketing guru Joanna Hoffman, played by Kate Winslet, has to balance out Jobs’ aspirations, with the realities of business. Winslet, too, shines throughout the film.

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Kate Winslet as marketing guru Joana Hoffman.

Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs

But for me, Danny Boyle’s direction is one of the film’s highlights. Working with Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay (developed from Walter Isaacson’s book of the same name), Boyle tells a familiar story through an unfamiliar lens. The film has a lovely clean aesthetic, reminiscent of TV’s Halt and Catch Fire, and the composition reflects Jobs’ meticulous eye for detail.

Boyle focuses on the overall aesthetic of the film, but each actor, and each scene builds on its legacy and image. There are no anomalies. Everything adds to the film and its branding. And it’s impossible to separate Apple, and its slick products, from Boyle’s film.

The aesthetics are virtually identical. Boyle uses beautiful, yet subtle, imagery in the background to illustrate things that Jobs says. It’s an effective stylistic choice, and one that he uses to great effect.

There’s also a reliance on parallel editing, which leads to the past and present becoming intertwined. Jobs is seen over the course of fourteen years, and scenes and conversations call back to other moments in his life. Again, this is clever stylistic choice, and it establishes that Jobs always had a singular focus and vision, and he sacrificed nearly everything at every point to achieve it.

The Steve Jobs Myth

However, you can’t truly separate the corporate mythologising and storytelling that Jobs’ coined, from Boyle’s depiction of the man. Yes, this is a different spin on the tale, but at the end of it all, we still reach the same historical moments. In many ways it doens’t matter how we got there.

Jobs’ adamancy, his pride, and his arrogance gave us some great technological innovations. They might have been repackaged, repurposed, and reused, but he turned the pieces into something new, into a beautified, simplistic whole.

He was a perfectionist, and Boyle’s carefully constructed film has a similar sort of tone. Nothing looks out of place, the performances are excellent, and there’s something mystical about what Jobs’ managed to achieve.

As Arthur C. Clarke put it:

‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.’

Well, the same is true of great art.

Could there be a better example of Steve Jobs and his work?

A piece of content scripted by Jack Kerouac’s writing, featuring Albert Einstein, Bob Dylan, Martin Luther King, Jr., Richard Branson, John Lennon (with Yoko Ono), Buckminster Fuller, Thomas Edison, Muhammad Ali, Ted Turner, Maria Callas, Mahatma Gandhi, Amelia Earhart, Alfred Hitchcock, Martha Graham, Jim Henson (with Kermit the Frog), Frank Lloyd Wright and Pablo Picasso.

But no Steve Jobs.

At least not literally.

He’s there, conducting, pulling the strings, and creating something new from something old. And that’s his professional legacy.

His personal legacy is less golden, or at least, that’s what Steve Jobs the movie suggests.

Danny Boyle ends Steve Jobs on an emotive note. It’s a subtle film, relying more on character driven performances, than narrative arcs, or conventions.

We don’t see Jobs outside of his professional persona. He never stops working, his life is defined by the products that he gave us, and really, that’s not a particularly new narrative.

But thanks to Michael Fassbender, now, at the heart of the story, there is a man. How real that man is, is up for debate.

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