In the history of technology failure is as important as success, if not more so. What innovators and technicians learn when a product fails, and the drive it gives them to succeed the next time is immensely important. For too long historians of technology have only focused on key moments, the mileposts and markers of change that predicate a new age – the steam engine, the aeroplane, the nuclear bomb – as if somehow these things just pop into existence one day and revolutionise everything that has come before. But for every product that succeeds there have been thousands of failures that feed into the refining and redesigning of the next iteration. Steve Jobs, which had its European premiere at the London Film Festival last night, takes you on that journey from product failure to eventual success, and showcases the ambition, ruthlessness and self-belief required to succeed.
Like Suffragette (LFF’s Opening Night Gala), Steve Jobs can be viewed in two ways; how valuable an insight does it give us into the times in which it’s set taking in the personalities, events and encounters it depicts, and, at a different level, what value does it have as technological film. Its story is grouped around three product launches, the Macintosh in 1984, the NeXT cube in 1988 and ends with the iMac in 1998. The first failed and cost Jobs (Michael Fassbender) his position at Apple, ousted by the Board, after which he developed the NeXT cube which also tanked, both of which Danny Boyle’s film cleverly implies ultimately resulted in the success of the iMac and proved Jobs’s genius after 14 years. The story is far more than a tale of machines and the human element is added using Jobs’s contentious interactions with former Apple CEO John Scully (Jeff Daniels), colleague Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogan) and the daughter he long refused to accept, Lisa.
There are many compelling things about this film but perhaps the most surprising given its subject matter is how theatrical it felt. Performed in three acts and with Aaron Sorkin’s famously wordy dialogue it felt like you were watching an elaborate play that cleverly builds the tension throughout, giving you explosive conversations in each act before building to a semi-resolution in the last. It doesn’t take us up to the present day or through the eventual consequences of Jobs’s victory, but carefully leaves you with the idea that the development of technology never ends, that for an innovator the launch of a new product is not the end of the process but the beginning of a new one. Having a day job in a Business School meant, for me, that the film’s notions of innovation management, product development and marketing were resonant and in many ways give a flavour of both the cut-and-thrust of business, as well as the excitement of working in developing fields.
Being a Danny Boyle film also means it also has his recognisable stamp in terms of the use of light, colour and cultural references, plus an effectively mixed soundtrack. Each section of the film is shot as if it belongs to its particularly era which gave it a docu-history effect that worked really nicely. Boyle also used a lot of backstage shots of lighting rigs and scenery, as well as the grand sweep of the auditoria used for the launches, which reinforced Sorkin’s theatre-like script. Peppered throughout we also get the sense of Jobs’s love of aesthetics with art and music in particular playing a huge role in explaining his preference for slinky design. He’s seen presenting his products to the world in the San Francisco Opera House where he conducts a conversation in the orchestra pit, describing himself as a conductor who ‘plays the orchestra.’ We also see him at the NeXT launch removing a bunch of flowers from beside the cube and replacing them with lilies which he has handpicked from a dinner table somewhere else in the building because the shot is more pleasing to him with a sleeker-shaped flower. These are all tiny touches or even background to the emotional dramas being played out effectively ‘up-stage’, but the consistency of the design and character actions is nicely realised.
Fassbender has already generated a considerable degree of Oscar buzz for this role and (unsurprisingly) it is entirely deserved. Jobs is not a likeable character, he’s rude, arrogant, condescending and often irascible but while those qualities could have made him entirely repellent, Fassbender offers so many layers of performance that you simultaneously begin to understand the kind of person Jobs had to be to succeed. The incredible self-belief and refusal to hear others, to see events from anything but his own perspective seem here as necessary evils that eventually lead to his success. The relationship with his daughter Lisa is also incredibly nuanced and while his behaviour seems cruel, Fassbender also contrasts this with his own buried feelings of parental rejection (Jobs was adopted), isolation and of just genuinely not understanding other people’s emotional responses and why they can’t put them aside. He’s an incredibly intuitive actor who thoroughly embodies every character he plays which brings a rare level of intensity to the screen and here he punches out Sorkin’s dialogue with incredible conviction. So much so that given the hoo hah which accompanied the making of this film and Fassbender’s last minute sign-up, you wonder if it would have worked so well without him. He so dominates the screen that when he’s not there, you are just waiting for him to come back and in places Sorkin’s script feels overwritten because Fassbender can, and does, produce a single look that obviates the need for the next 10 lines of dialogue. So in less than a month that’s two astonishing Oscar-worthy performances, although I actually hope he gets recognised for Macbeth which just has the edge as a complete film.
There’s good support from Seth Rogan as Steve Wozniak, Jobs’s colleague and friend from the days they worked from their garage. The film also explores the fascinating relationship between these two men and doesn’t really take sides, so while Jobs comes off quite badly in their early scenes, during their major final confrontation we see the petty jealousy and longing for recognition that Wozniak has born for 14 years but was unable to achieve without the ambitious qualities Jobs possessed. Jeff Daniels, after a stint in Sorkin’s The Newsroom, plays the man who supposedly fired Steve Jobs from Apple after the failure of the Macintosh and the two play a cleverly directed scene set in 1988 as a Sculley-Jobs confrontation is interspersed with flashback scenes of the original rainy night emergency Board meeting where we learn who was really responsible for forcing that decision. Finally Kate Winslet is a constant presence as Joanna Hoffman who was Job’s Marketing Director and friend, although closer to a personal assistant / counsellor in this film. It doesn’t really explore their relationship or why she continued to work for someone so difficult or how reliant he was on her. Winslet’s accent didn’t seem to exist in the 1984 section but became more pronounced in the 1988 and 1998 sections but otherwise she is a very good support figure, almost part of the background but a constant presence and control.
On the red carpet of the LFF’s Closing Night Gala Michael Fassbender made the point that this film is not a biopic but a dramatisation, and one that compresses numerous events and relationships into 3 convenient slots. It is the nature of filmmaking that a lot will be left out and conversations imagined in order to give the story greater depth. In presenting all this information in an unconventional way, Boyle directs with energy and purpose, nicely capturing the emotional intensity and frayed tempers that would seem natural in the frantic minutes before a product launch, and it certainly seems fitting that an film about an inventor should have an innovative set-up. Arguably it’s a little too reverential towards the end but then with a sea of iphones taking pictures of the cast and Boyle on stage it’s hard to make a case against the impact of Jobs on modern technology. Some of the computer-talk may have gone over my head but the quality of the performances and the design make Steve Jobs compelling viewing. Most impressively, it’s a film that is absolutely right in its comments on the nature of technological development and the huge effort involved in developing those rare successes that just might go on to become a sensation.
Steve Jobs was shown at the London Film Festival and opens in UK cinemas on 13 November. Follow this blog on Twitter: @culturalcap1