When Anthony Hopkins took to the screen to play Richard Nixon in Oliver Stone’s biopic of the former US President, a now-familiar debate played out. Stone wanted a leading actor who could capture the mannerisms and character of Nixon, rather than a visual mimic. But, certainly when the news of the casting landed, many questioned the fact that Hopkins looked nothing like Nixon. I’d argue that Oliver Stone was ultimately rewarded with one of Hopkins’ most complex and interesting performances.
Contrast that with the Oscar-winning performance of Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady, where she brought Margaret Thatcher to the screen. As strong as her performance was, I always felt it a little more edging towards visualising Thatcher rather than digging into her character. There’s a broader problem with the film there, that’s not down to Streep. But it’s the continual conundrum of casting a film based on a real person, still fresh in many people’s memories.
The plaudits for Steve Jobs have primarily, rightly, been directed towards Michael Fassbender. For me, he evokes more the Hopkins approach. Only towards the end of this bumpy yet engrossing biopic of the Apple co-founder is an effort made to make Fassbender actively look like Jobs. But by then, you’ve long since bought his take on the role.
Yet Steve Jobs the movie is willing to take risks like that.
In an era where the conventional biopic seems to run to two and a half hours, and cover a rise, fall and redemption, Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay here is at the heart of the film’s biggest gamble. Aside from a couple of broader shots, there’s the concentration and focus of a three act stage play here, one that’s brought creative license to Jobs’ story, in order to zero in on the key relationships in his life. In doing so, it misses out an awful lot, the kind of big moments that still resonate, and would have packed out a trailer. But the trade off, an important one, is a more interesting and unpredictable film.
Steve Jobs stages its drama around three key events in the history of Apple and Jobs, filling in gaps around them with fast-flying newspaper headlines and snippers. This allows Sorkin to capture Jobs’ relationship with four people in his life – his daughter, the mother of his daughter, his Apple co-founder and his sort-of-boss – and in turn reflect that back on Jobs himself.
Credit too in the midst of this to Kate Winslet, whose Joanna Hoffman could have been a simple bridging character, yet actually anchors an awful lot of the movie.
That said, whilst it’s Fassbender who rightly gets plaudits here, but it’s hard to fault the cast entire. Seth Rogen is excellent as Steve Wozniak, and Jobs’ distancing from him is in itself a complicated relationship. Yet the core feels more Jobs’ attempts to relate to his daughter, Lisa, and where her mother – Katherine Waterston as Chrisann – fits in. It’s here we get to see the least likeable yet also oddly warming paradoxes that fuel the version of Jobs we get on the screen. In Fassbender, you can see the moments where Jobs’ brain gets energised, without having to hammer at the screen to get the point across.
I did wonder, though, if Steve Jobs may have been a better, more intense two hours if staged in the claustrophobia of a theatre, rather than on the big screen. Not just because the structuring overtly lends itself to such an approach – although it does – but also because there’s something the stage can do that the screen can’t. That it zeroes in so heavily on its characters and their changing relationships, that the concentration of theatre (and a theatre audience, in truth) may have been the better arena for it.
But then I like the risks that Steve Jobs takes. I do think Walter Isaacson’s book has four or five other stories that could make compelling films too, but there’s a boldness in the way that Sorkin has adapted the material that deserves to be applauded. That he took a left turn, rather than plotted a calculated path to the stage of the Oscars.
Steve Jobs may well yet get there, and Michael Fassbender certainly will. But the film’s approach does come with the consequence that, for its relatively economic running time, you certainly feel it. For all its qualities, things do nag you about it.
Turns out that Steve Jobs the film is a not-dissimilar offbeat enigma as the man it’s based on.
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