Sunday 29 November 2015

Chips on his shoulders: "Steve Jobs"

2015 was the year in which mainstream American movies - increasingly sustained by towering entertainment conglomerates - became fascinated by the way major corporations go about their business. This bent towards self-examination, whether neurotic or just plain narcissistic, could be observed in a mini-wave of mild, office-centred comedies (The Internship, The Intern) premised on the kind of entry-level drudgery most cinemagoers will have had to suffer through at some time in order to make rent; it was all that passed for subtext in the year's biggest hit to date, Jurassic World. Yet the issue of whether boardroom drama holds lasting appeal for those of us without blue-chip stock portfolios remains very much open to question. There's a measure of irony in the fact that Danny Boyle's Steve Jobs, a film about a man whose products regularly have punters queuing up around the block in the dead of night should open to largely empty cinemas in the US - but then one of the film's themes is the profound disconnect that presently exists between the way things are made and how they're sold, between who we are and the people (and consumers) we aspire to be.

Aaron Sorkin's script proceeds with the aim of leading us deep inside the Apple empire to examine its pith and pips: here are three tranches of time - slices, if we must continue the metaphor - which, taken collectively, purport to give us some, if not all, of a bigger biographical picture. It is in 1984, at the moment of Reaganomics, that we first meet Jobs (Michael Fassbender), a floppy-haired techie beset by problems of communication in the minutes before the launch of the hallowed Macintosh. On a micro level, the damn machine won't say "hello" to the assembled press corps as Jobs hopes, necessitating some frenzied last-gasp programming, while others prove only too vocal in clamoring for our hero's divided attention: chiefly, his sometime girlfriend Chrisann (Katherine Waterston), who arrives backstage trailing a six-year-old daughter to whom Jobs has repeatedly denied all claim. A technical aside reveals the Mac has been specifically designed in such a way as to be incompatible with anything else, a ploy intended to boost sales: we are, at the end of this section, led to wonder to what extent it was created in its maker's own image.

In the 1988 section, we find Jobs 2.0 - now with sleek Patrick Bateman styling - in exile after a falling-out with Apple CEO John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), trying in vain to summon up enthusiasm for his new project, the NeXT Black Cube. (Nope, me neither.) This second act is where you start to hear Sorkin's framework groaning and creaking: it's the inevitable downtime between personal and professional triumphs, dependent for its conflict on such contrivances as Jobs learning from a handily placed magazine article that Sculley is buying his new enterprise out. Finally, we jump ahead to 1998, and the launch of the iMac: having established a measure of dominance over the marketplace, Jobs can be observed making nice (or as nice as Jobs made) with his colleagues, and making a belated investment in his now college-age daughter (Perla Haney-Jardine); the moral, which may only come as a surprise to anyone in the higher tax bands, is that personal and commercial growth need not be mutually exclusive.

Boyle makes this three-act play cinematic by seeking out different stages (a theatre, an opera house, a concert hall) with different acoustics and resonances for each part, and rendering each backdrop in a different, era-appropriate visual style, but all this moving around - the walking-and-talking familiar from the Sorkin oeuvre, the kinetic shotgrabbing that's been a Boyle trademark ever since the opening of Shallow Grave - doesn't get us any closer to knowing Steve Jobs the man. Instead, Steve Jobs the movie circles frenetically around in the manner of someone conducting a trolley dash through an Apple store or theme park. The experience is diverting and well-staffed, certainly - at every turn of the clock we encounter the kind of performer smart enough to get their heads and tongues around Sorkin's linguistic chicanery - but the cold, hard mechanics of the Apple business empire get concealed, rather than laid bare, by Boyle and Sorkin's relentless, rat-a-tat show business. 

You're meant simply to switch off and go with it, but to think differently for a minute - in that phrase's original, pre-corporate sense, before it came to mean "queue up at 5am along with all the other suckers" - isn't there something perilously banal about Sorkin's insistence that all of Jobs's interpersonal issues could be traced back to his days in an orphanage? Isn't there something a touch soft in the film's insinuation Jobs can't really be all that bad if sensible Kate Winslet (as Apple press chief Joanna Hoffman) stayed by his side all this while? And isn't there something shameless and cutesy in the final act's conclusion that the iPod was manufactured for love, not for money? Throughout all this, I kept having flashbacks to the ways in which David Fincher's rigorous direction of Sorkin's script for The Social Network cut through the bullshit and flattery and - in doing so - got us closer to its varyingly vulnerable, wounded characters. By comparison, the people in Steve Jobs resemble at best avatars outmanoeuvring one another, Pac Man ghosts in a machine; at worst, they seem like actors cast as script delivery systems in a showy, self-satisfied stage or radio play. (The choice of locations, in this instance, hardly helps the film's cause: until the closing minutes, we're stuck inside a bubble and repeatedly reminded we're in a bubble.)

That the new film has been conceived, at the highest level, with at least one eye on winning over the suits who might finance it is evident in the reams of dialogue given over to stock prices and takeover manoeuvres (a niche interest, like fly fishing, only without the fresh air) and in the altogether forgiving portrait of its protagonist as handsome, charismatic, hyper-articulate, mercurial and finally unknowable, which is to say untouchable by the likes of you and I. For all their issues, Steve Jobs ventures, we're stuck with these absent, distant corporate fathers, and unlike the increasingly misanthropic Fincher, Boyle remains too much the crowdpleaser to fashion anything especially questioning upon being handed that scenario. He does, as ever, an energetic and professional job in bringing this script to the screen - it's an easy sit-through, and part of me immediately wanted to watch it all over again, as though it were an especially virtuosic trailer - but the result still feels more like a sales pitch than a serious, considered inquiry: for all Apple's reported objections to the idea of a Jobs biopic - protect the brand! - their investors can rest easy with the finished product, which will end up on iTunes soon enough.  

Steve Jobs is now playing in cinemas nationwide. 

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