You might well think of the work of Danny Boyle, ‘the nicest man in films’, as sprawling, anarchic, full of some kind of joie de vivre, whether it’s the bouncing pantomime of the Olympics ceremony, the Slumdog world of India or Trainspotters’ ‘Lust for Life’. But here the icy precision that must lie below the presentation of all that teeming life is right up front. We all remember those louche TV performances of Jobs, wooing his public like he was a better, smarter one of them, with his new magic machines designed to fulfil their every digital need. Here, in the form of a 3-act play, set over 14 years, we look behind the scenes, literally, in the corridors and back rooms of the studios where the three key launches are about to take place, and witness the confrontations with family and previous colleagues. It’s wordy, demanding, sometimes exasperating and, against expectations, utterly thrilling.
Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, who already showed in The Social Network his great suspicion and fascination with high-performing geeks and the dehumanising aspects of digital world in general, makes a fascinating monster of Jobs (Michael Fassbender). While the eager audiences gather to wonder at each new product ( the Apple Mac, the NeXT and the iMac), a colourful and noisy lot whom we glimpse infrequently and hear in the distance, Jobs prowls the dim backstage corridors, his huge ego bound by a tightly wound spring, chivvied by his right-hand woman Joanne Hoffman (a brilliant Kate Winslet). The curtain’s almost always about to go up, but time is stretched for confrontations with real life.
The organisation of the material is as formalised as an old-fashioned play. In each of the 3 scenarios he faces three females – Hoffman, his ex-partner Chrisann (Katherine Waterston) and his daughter (played at ages 5, 9 and 19 by Makenzie Moss, Ripley Sobo and Perla Haney Jardine) – and three men – former colleagues Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogan), Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg) and John Sculley (a splendidly knowing and unflappable Jeff Daniels). In the case of the males, each very instrumental in Apple’s successes, we watch the increasing deterioration of the relationships, as in his head, where the future is all that counts, he rewrites history and discounts graft. Watching the lean and icy Fassbender ripping into genial, clever teddy bear Seth Rogan brings the kind of righteous indignation that’s one of those slightly guilty cinematic pleasures.
While his male relationships deteriorate in the course of the film, when it comes to the women in his life, Jobs is shown developing an uneasy warmth towards his daughter, but he is only interested at all after he has seen her 5-year-old self respond and interact with his creation. Previously he denied paternity. Hard to believe that this was a man who spent years in a hippy commune and road-tripping in India. Hard to take, too, is the rather soapy ending, where his icy shell is finally sprung open by paternal love. I didn’t buy it.
Perhaps one of the pleasing things about the film, intentional or not, and I suspect not, is that it totally fails to explain or find a real reason for Jobs’s emotional isolation. Sculley’s suggestion that it’s his rejection as a baby (Jobs was adopted) seems a bit formulaic and doesn’t really have much conviction. Jobs as a phenomenon is what animates the film, and I found myself wanting him to be inhuman, it was so perversely enjoyable. Like Lear, I suppose, he’s softened and redeemed in the end by love of his daughter. Perhaps it’s my fatal flaw that I would have preferred him to go down still his flawed self, like Macbeth.