The era of non-stop counter-programming seems to be coming to an end, as the stream of low-budget biographical movies is finally replaced by... oh, a big-budget biographical movie. And, a movie which may itself arguably be considered counter-programming, given that it has apparently tanked massively in the States, and presumably no-one at Universal has very great hopes for it doing any better over here. The film in question is Danny Boyle's Steve Jobs, which concerns... oh, you guessed it.
Yes, you might think there was something slightly ironic about the fact that a movie about the famously successful entrepreneur is struggling to make its money back at the box office, but one of the things the film highlights is the fact that Jobs was not quite the Midas figure popular legend has him being. Not entirely unpredictably, Boyle and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin eschew anything resembling a traditional bio-pic and opt for a hugely theatrical structure, where the film finds Jobs (Michael Fassbender) at his most intense, in the moments leading up to three key product launches: the Apple Macintosh in 1984, the NeXT Cube (no, me neither) in 1988, and the iMac in 1988. (Prior to all this, the scene is set with some archive footage of another visionary, as Arthur C Clarke – speaking, it would appear, in the late 60s or early 70s – predicts how the PC revolution was going to change many lives.)
As coincidence and the script would have it, Jobs ends up talking with the same handful of people on all three occasions – Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), company CEO John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), his initially-unacknowledged daughter (various actresses), and so on. Overseeing it all is marketing executive Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), who often seems to be the closest thing Jobs has to an actual friend. The same themes recur: Jobs as an obsessive control-freak on a monumental scale, as a prophet of a digitally-enhanced world, as a colossal ego, and as a man highly unlikely to win the Parent of the Year award.
It does boil down to the same few actors talking to each other about roughly the same things on a handful of different sets (there are cutaway sequences to Jobs and Wozniak in the garage where Apple was founded, and to the board meeting which saw Jobs ejected from the company in 1985), but Sorkin's flair for dialogue and Boyle's deftness with a camera mean that the film is anything but flat and dull. There are thrilling, electrifying moments of drama scattered through the movie, delivered by a group of actors making the most of an extremely good script.
Even though I am not the world's biggest Apple fan (I believe I still have an iPod somewhere, but I haven't listened to it in at least five years), I have of course heard of Steve Jobs and knew a little (a very little, if we're honest) about him – the man has, after all, become something of a present-day icon. (This is the second Jobs bio-pic in three years.) Steve Jobs the movie does a first-rate job of turning Steve Jobs the icon into Steve Jobs a man – the objection that many who knew Jobs have been making, of course, is that the man on the screen is a grotesque caricature of the person who they knew, and that Boyle and Sorkin have other fish to fry than doing Jobs justice. Certainly the character played by Fassbender is breathtakingly callous and brutally manipulative for much of the movie – but, to be fair, the film makes no attempt to hide what an influential thinker he was, or how many of his ideas now underpin the fabric of everyday life (and by the end of the film it's fairly plain that, underneath it all, he does at least aspire to be a decent father).
Whatever else, Michael Fassbender is certainly very impressive in the central role. Some quite excitable things have been said about Fassbender of late, declaring him the new Brando and so on, but he is one of those actors who does seem capable of anything, and is furthermore quite untroubled (it would appear) by ego. He even seems quite capable of that most difficult balancing act, where he spends some of his time in unashamedly populist entertainment (one more X-Men film is still to appear) and some of it in less mainstream fare (Macbeth, for instance) while remaining in demand for both.
Quite which category Steve Jobs falls into is the question of the moment, as the movie apparently cost a total of $60m to produce and market and has so far recouped less than half that. The obvious comparison, for all sorts of reasons, is with The Social Network, which ended up making about $225m – not exactly Marvel or Bond money, but still pretty impressive. But why did that film connect with audiences in a way this one apparently hasn't? Well, friends, I frankly have no idea: I doubt very much that it's just because Facebook was at its height of coolness back in 2010, while right now we're all sick to death of hearing about Apple/Jobs, nor do I think the ostentatious theatricality of Steve Jobs is what's been frightening the horses. Is there something to the claim that Fassbender just isn't a big enough star to open a movie on this scale? Hmm, maybe, but are people claiming that Jesse Eisenberg is?
It may simply be the case that this is an anomaly, a fluke of release dates and zeitgeist conspiring to make a genuinely good movie tank. For Steve Jobs is a very impressive piece of film-making, as you might expect of the talents involved. Is it a fair portrait of its subject? I doubt anyone is qualified to say for sure, but script, performances and direction are all first class, and you do emerge from the theatre excited and moved and with some thoughts newly-provoked. In the end, I suspect history will prove to be as kind to Steve Jobs as it almost certainly will to Steve Jobs.