Surprisingly, the hype about the Steve Jobs film is justified

We attend the first European showing of the new Steve Jobs film

It is Sunday at 9am. The Vue on Leicester Square is half empty. I shouldn’t be surprised. But this is the European press screening of Steve Jobs. And the film has had a lot of hype.

Steve Jobs boasts an all-star cast. Michael Fassbender takes the title role. Kate Winslet plays his “work wife”, Joanna Hoffman. It has a script by Aaron Sorkin – who also wrote Facebook drama, The Social Network – and is directed by Danny Boyle.  

I must admit my expectations are rather low. I’m generally unimpressed by things people rave about – especially films tipped for Oscars prior to their release. But on this occasion I am entirely wrong. This is very well put together. And even the raging sycophancy at the packed press event, later in the afternoon, can’t undermine the quality of the work.

This is an extremely hard film to deliver on. Yet impressively it brings to mind the screenplays of Harold Pinter. These are nothing like his long, silent stage works and instead translate intense, emotionally challenging novels – like The Servant by Robin Maugham and The Pumpkin Eater by Penelope Mortimer – into short, tight stories for the screen.

The real challenge with any non-original drama is to take all that familiar complexity and make it work in a visual medium. This is very much the issue with a film about a well-known person, like Jobs. And this is based on the in-depth biography by Walter Isaacson.

There is also endless press reportage on Jobs, a recent documentary, The Man in the Machine. And even the original 1999 movie Pirates of Silicon Valley, which pits him against Bill Gates.

Now this latest film takes all the standard biographical details of Jobs’ life – the ones that always do the rounds, like his bullying, his relationship with his daughter Lisa, and his “reality distortion field”  –  and reforms them into a clear, dramatic narrative. It straddles a difficult balance because it has comedy and pathos – and reveals Jobs to be a horrible person – all without losing any of the things that make him admirable.

The story itself is set over three high profile product launches – the Macintosh in 1984, the NeXT in 1988 and the iMac in 1998. It is perfect Aristotelian three act structure and was filmed on three separate cameras – 16mm, 3mm and digital – in three separate chunks, with two weeks solid rehearsal time prior to each shoot. 

“It’s a one off that you get a script like this,” says Michael Fassbender at the press conference where the sheer volume of dialogue gets a lot of attention. “Nowadays most scenes comprise of 10 sentences.”

In fact, Fassbender is excellent in the title role. And while he looks a lot less like Jobs than Noah Wyle, who played him in Pirates of Silicon Valley, he achieves a very good overall impression. This is important, because one thing I could personally never quite get my head round about Jobs, was why people would revere someone so awful. This film highlights the dichotomy rather well.  

“How accurate was the portrayal?” asks a journalist at the conference. “I don’t know,” says Fassbender. “Unless I met him I really couldn’t tell.”

Fassbender explains he didn’t know anything about the character until he got the role, tried to take his “feeling” from what was in the script, and watched a lot of interviews on YouTube. He did not read the biography. 

“I don’t know what a fair sense of anybody is,” says Sorkin. “If you asked a thousand people [who met Steve Jobs] you’d get a thousand impressions,” and this is certainly not trying to be a dramatisation of his Wikipedia page.

“Are they fair [portrayals]?” Sorkin asks. “I think they’re fair.” Steve Jobs did not have confrontations for 40 minutes with the same six people before three product launches but the aim, he explains, is to show a wider truth.

Personally, I think this does an extremely good job. There are bits that don’t quite work. The character of Apple CEO John Sculley, played by Jeff Daniels, who keeps harping on about Jobs’ adoption feels like a brave attempt to shoehorn in an important thread.

And there is something slightly comic about the slow glamming up of the Kate Winslet character. Who opens with a pair of frumpy glasses and gradually morphs into her usual gorgeous self with longer hair and beautifully highlighted cheekbones.

The ending also is a little unsatisfactory too if I’m feeling picky. You can almost imagine someone saying: “darling, we must take this character on a journey”. But then it is a rather cleverly repackaged film version of a life. And if you’re off to the cinema, really, what more can you expect? 


Further reading:

Rant: The deification of Steve Jobs
Is Apple better or worse without Steve Jobs?
Apple: The legacy of Steve Jobs’ ‘inspirational’ leadership
Steve Jobs: The tech bully poster-boy