When Alan Turing, the inventor of the computer, was found dead from cyanide poisoning in 1954, a half-eaten apple lay by the side of his bed. Is it significant that Steve Jobs, the re-inventor of the computer, chose that very object as his company logo, complete with a fateful missing bite, when he started Apple Computer, Inc. in his parents’ garage 22 years later?
“We just chose it off a list of friendly words,” the great man says, without much of a trace of friendliness at all, when a journalist quizzes him on this in Danny Boyle’s manically entertaining new biopic of the Apple co-founder. “But wouldn’t it be great if that was the story behind it?”
The riveting method behind Boyle’s film, which stars Michael Fassbender and was scripted by Aaron Sorkin, is to turn Jobs’s chaotically varied but finally triumphant career into exactly that kind of great story. No coincidence is only a coincidence. Every detail tells us something about the mind that conceived it. Boyle, Fassbender and Sorkin have set about the process of creating art with the steely scrupulousness of master engineers – while the film itself insists on engineering as an art-form.
Whenever Apple’s more affable co-founder Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen) tries to point out that a computer isn’t the same as a painting, Jobs immediately shotguns the idea to smithereens. Throughout the film, he likens himself to a great visual artist or composer – and when Woz asks him to define his hard-to-quantify role at the company (Jobs doesn’t write code or solder circuit boards), it’s artistry that gives him the perfect metaphor. “The musicians play their instruments,” he says. “I play the orchestra.”
There’s much to be receptive to: not least of all its ingenious structure, which splits the film into three distinct acts, each of which takes place backstage in real time before an Apple product launch. The opening section, set in 1984, heralds the arrival of the Macintosh – the squat, chirpy, all-in-one desktop computer that became the company’s mascot throughout the Eighties.
Then the film skips forward to 1988, by which point Jobs and Apple have parted ways, and the unveiling of his new creation – the ego-massaging Next cube, monolithic, expensive and destined for failure – and finally to 1998, where lies the iMac, vindication, and his first taste of the market domination to come.
The wildly different atmospheres of every time period are hard-coded into the film’s fabric. Daniel Pemberton’s neck-prickling score moves from digital bleeps and throbs to orchestral swagger and finally brooding electronica – while cinematographer Alwin Küchler shoots the first act on rough-and-ready 16mm stock, the second on creamy, glamorous 35mm, and the third on fridge-cold digital.
In a brilliantly Boylean flourish – one of the few on show here; the director’s work hasn’t felt this disciplined since his 2007 science-fiction thriller Sunshine – each of the first two sections ends with the film strip itself apparently spluttering free from its moorings, while the third arrives on screen in a rainbow-coloured burp of pixels.
It’s a neat, thrilling way to illustrate Jobs’s central role in splitting our recent history into definable eras – and while the iPod and iPhone both fall outside the film’s tight remit (as do any number of other milestones, from Pixar to pancreatic cancer), Sorkin’s script anticipates them both as cunningly as a Marvel superhero movie foreshadows its own sequel.
As with most Sorkin productions, the chief pleasure here is watching a terrific cast perform Olympic-standard verbal gymnastics without a safety net. That each scene plays out against a countdown to showtime only heightens the tension, with figures from Jobs’s professional and private lives blustering in and out of the picture at the worst possible moment.
It’s pure contrivance – and, of course, fiction – but Sorkin largely manages to defuse it with a