As the second biopic about Steve Jobs in as many years, it’s inevitable that Steve Jobs should play out as a conscious revision of the Apple mythology promulgated by 2013’s Jobs, to the point where it almost requires a comparison between the two films to bring out the originality of Aaron Sorkin and Danny Boyle’s vision of this most image-driven of tech entrepreneurs. Where Jobs opens in 1974 at John Reed College and ends in 2001 with the arrival of the iPod, Steve Jobs follows a quite austere three-act structure, each of which focuses on the preparations for a different product launch – the Apple Macintosh, the NeXT Computer and the iMac G3 – rather than the actual creation of the product itself. Just as importantly, whereas Jobs is keen to prevent Jobs as a technological innovator, Steve Jobs totally bypasses the legendary Silicon Valley garage – quite an audacious move for a Jobs biopic – to focus on Jobs as a master of image management and a self-appointed descendent of America’s rapturous religious heritage.
In many ways, those differences are encapsulated in the casting decisions made for each film. With Ashton Kutcher as Jobs, Josh Gad as Steve Wozniak and Matthew Modine as John Sculley, Jobs plays out as something of a bromance, albeit a hagiographic bromance, continually emphasising Jobs’ vision but also his availability, accesibility and charisma. In many ways, that reflects Kutcher’s growing status as the ultimate tech billionaire bro, since in the same year that Jobs came out he became product engineer for Lenovo, following a lengthy parallel career as a venture capitalist that included investments in Skype, Foursquare, Airbnb and Path, a co-founding position in A-Grade Investments and a foundational role in the early days of Twitter. It’s not surprising, then, that Jobs also felt like a personal, even autobiographical project for Kutcher, a way of introducing a side to his life that wasn’t always visible in his goofier onscreen persona. Steve Jobs, by contrast, casts Michael Fassbender as Jobs, an actor whose narcissistic fixation with his own image management has never been as steely or as stately as it is here. In many ways, Fassbender only has a couple of looks as an actor, but part of what makes him compelling is how assiduously he has branded those looks as his own, even as they tend to subsume or replace the more traditional charisma that was once the purview of cinematic attachment.
Replacing Kutcher with Fassbender, then, means replacing any residually humanist approach to Jobs with a far more remote, austere and sublime exercise in capitalist celebrity. For what’s unusual about Steve Jobs is that it is both more and less hagiographic than Jobs: while it may hold off from celebrating Jobs’ family life, professional friendships, or personality, it is much more attuned to the visionary cult that he built around himself. In some ways, that difference is also evident in the fact that Steve Jobs evinces almost no interest in Jobs’ life outside his image management. Sure, key figures are here – there’s Jeff Daniels as James Sculley, Katherine Waterstone as Jobs’ ex-lover Chrisann Brennan and Seth Rogen as Steve Wozniak, in one of his best dramatic roles (only a bro as big as Rogen could puncture the bromantic potential of the Jobs-Wozniak mythos). At the same time, however, these figures are all more or less reduced to bit players, flitting in and out of wings, indistinguishable from Jobs’ fantasies of them, or his ruminations of how they can best serve his personal brand. Only Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), Jobs’ marketing executive – a character who is entirely absent from Jobs –plays something like a genuine supporting role, as she struggles with him over his image as the three product launches unfold.
For all those reasons, then, Steve Jobs doesn’t present us with Jobs the technician but with Jobs the imagist, Jobs the visionary and Jobs the monomaniac. While the three launches all revolve around quite different products, what comes through each time is Jobs’ obsession with presentation – identity, brand and product converge – dissociating him from the technical process itself in a study of self-promotional rhetoric at its most grandiose. Time and again, Jobs compares himself to Leonardo da Vinci, less a human than a “dent in the universe” that continually insists on his singularity of vision and purpose, creating an almost hallucinatory grandiloquence that syncs perfectly with screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s claustrophobic conversation chambers. I’ve never been a huge fan of Sorkin’s high-pressure, patter-songs of testosterone-fuelled dialogue, but they work perfectly here as they contemplate something like their ideal mouthpiece. In some ways, there has always been something inherently post-human about Sorkin’s brand of dialogue that may have made it feel bombastic in a human context, but that suddenly feels eerily naturalistic when paired with a subject like Jobs. If Sorkin’s dialogue always feels as if it is competing against itself, or striving to transcend itself – and dialogue – altogether in the name of some final, definitive monologue, than that process well and truly occurs here. Watching it, then, is like seeing Sorkin achieve some great apotheosis as well, part self-fulfilment and part self-destruction, that often makes it feel as if the screenplay is consuming or subsuming itself as it proceeds.
Indeed, at his most intense, Jobs feels less like a marketer and more like the latest instalment in the long line of American religious traditions that reach back to the Pilgrims he so frequently invokes – or, rather, he reminds us that corporate culture works partly by internalising and remediating this sense of rapturous vision and purpose. Somewhere between a missionary, a marketing guru and a self-help expert, Jobs often comes off as a study in corporate charisma, once again making him the perfect subject for Sorkin’s lens. Time and again, Sorkin has proved himself to be fascinated by the process by which charisma as an affective mechanism is dissociated from charisma as a moral authority, with the success of his films and television series often depending upon how elegantly that disassociation occurs. At his best when writing in and around spaces that function as platforms for performative charisma, it often feels as if the elegance and economy of Steve Jobs’ structure – three product launches, three instances of image management, three extended walk-and-talks – is a distillation of every film he has ever pinned, By the very end, Jobs’ charisma is so assured that he barely seems to need customers – “I’d bet whoever said the customer is always right was a customer” – seeming to float alone as a kind of self-fulfilling prophetic figure, available to everyone but answerable to no-one.
Of course, that impression is not simply down to Sorkin’s screenplay but Danny Boyle’s direction. One of the most difficult contemporary directors to frame in auteurist terms, Boyle seems to hover between stylistic tours de force and an almost functional, invisible style. Here, his direction falls somewhere in between, since it’s inevitably subordinated to Sorkin’s screenplay, but flamboyant in its own understated way, functioning to evoke the driving engine of Jobs’ supreme confidence without directly or explicitly visualising it. Like Steven Soderbergh, Boyle has a great taste for the real-time, procedural unfolding of data, and the sleek geometrical curvature of Apple aesthetics are here recapitulated his beautiful extended tracking-shots, which often feel as if they are emulating the very cusp of Jobs’ conception of things – curves so deft and angles so rounded that he hasn’t quite managed to incorporate them into a product yet, even if they’re out there in the universe waiting for him to shape them to his will.
Of course, for all the sublimity of Jobs’ vision the film can’t help but paint a fairly unflattering picture of his monomaniacal oblivion to everything outside his product brief – his relationship with his daughter is particularly unflattering – but this is not exactly a deconstruction or a demystification either. Time and again, Sorkin doesn’t quite permit or deny Jobs the last word so much as draw attention to his assurance of always have just had the last word, as he radiates a calmer and calmer conviction that he is living further and further into the future than anyone around him – another reason, perhaps, why the film doesn’t venture too far into the present day. That calmness is inspiring, but also somewhat inane, even or especially when it descends in the midst of his endless arguments, invectives and confrontations: just when you think he’s about to disarm his antagonists out of sheer willpower, he’s punctured by Sorkin’s screenplay, but never quite enough that his unlikeability turns into a noble posture either. Not quite an antihero, and never quite allowed to descend into a more conventionally sympathetic vulnerability, he’s instead treated with the remote scrutiny of his own penetrating gaze. And that remoteness may be the film’s greatest achievement, since it’s clear that this most accomplished of self-branders loved to be loved, and loved to be hated, but was ultimately quite scandalised when his own procedural austerity was turned upon himself as clinically and radically as it is here.