I have no idea how accurate or inaccurate “Steve Jobs” is at portraying the real Jobs. As someone who fails to see the appeal of Apple products and despises its business practices, my feelings toward the real Jobs have fluctuated between disgust and indifference, depending on how much news comes out as to whether he was more or similarly evil to other Capitalists. Given that the film is written by Aaron Sorkin, who also wrote the excellent “The Social Network” which contained a Mark Zuckerberg who was far more eloquent and interesting than the real Zuckerberg appears to be in interviews, I assume the fictional Jobs is similarly more eloquent and interesting. I suppose the question I have about Jobs, upon seeing the film, is if he actually DID anything worthy of the odd cult of personality that surrounds him in modern culture. Based on the film, Jobs was not a tech genius or a visionary. The film argues that Jobs was a jerk who built upon the work of others, had marketing and presentation skills, and whose main character arc was to go from a person who wanted to force people to like what he wanted them to like to a person who made small accommodations and then convinced people to like what he wanted them to like. The film also portrays him as a narcissistic ass who doesn’t know the difference between a work of art and a product for consumption. Granted, these things aren’t always mutually exclusive (a movie is both a work of art and a product, and how much it is of one versus the other is often the deciding factor in its quality or lack thereof) but Wozniak (Seth Rogen) is right: a computer is not a painting.
Jobs is played by Michael Fassbender, who looks nothing like the real Jobs but is a phenomenal actor who is capable of delivering Sorkin’s dialogue and making it sound like real human speech, for which he deserves an Oscar nomination. Fassbender makes a profoundly unlikable character enjoyable to watch, which few actors can do well, especially when that character is in every scene of the damn movie. Anyone who appreciates acting as an art form has to see the film solely to see how Fassbender portrays a character at three different stages of his life, plus flashbacks, and makes them seem like the same person slightly altered by age and experience. How virtuosic this performance is may be lost on some people simply because this performance, and “Steve Jobs” itself, feels like it belongs more on stage than it does on film.
The film is divided into three distinct acts. We have 1984, where Jobs is introducing the Mac computer after the triumphant “1984” commercial which aired during the Super Bowl. Then we have 1988, after Jobs has been fired from Apple because the Mac was a commercial failure compared to the Apple II computer which didn’t have the closed system Jobs insisted the Mac have. In this segment, Jobs is launching his Next computer, which is bound to be a failure and he knows it. Then we have 1998, when Jobs has been brought back to Apple is about to lunch the iMac, which was the start of the golden age of Apple which would eventually give us the iPod and iPhone and iPad. While the screenplay by Sorkin is the real star of the film, Danny Boyle tries his hardest to give us compelling visuals for a story that takes place largely in dressing rooms and hallways before presentations. The coolest innovation is having each of the segments shot on different film stock. 1984 is shot on 16MM, and seeing 16MM on the big screen is so rare nowadays that it was visually my favorite segment just for the novelty of seeing a major film shot using it. 1988 is shot using the traditional 35 MM film stock. 1998 is shot using digital, which is how most films are shot nowadays. It’s a cool way of indicating the passage of time in a way outside of the normal obvious ways of making something look “period” (hair styles, costumes, and props), and the fact that Boyle is also able to get a striking shot in the film here and there (the near-opening shot of empty red metal seats, a downward shot of Jobs at a light table through funky lighting fixtures hanging from the ceiling in the third segment, etc.) is a testament to him. I’m not always a fan of Danny Boyle ( I HATED “Slumdog Millionaire”, “127 Hours” didn’t sufficiently showcase the passage of time, “A Life Less Ordinary” was a mess, etc.) but “Steve Jobs” is one of the best film’s he’s directed. Perhaps knowing that the film was originally going to be directed by David Fincher, one of the best living directors working today, forced Boyle to up his game. Maybe Sorkin’s screenplay had the shots written in and Boyle was just following the blueprint. Whatever the case may be, Boyle outdid himself here.
In 1984, Jobs is riding high on expectations. The “1984” commercial played well, and the world is anxiously awaiting the Mac as a computer with the potential to rival IBM for control over the personal computer world. Jobs has insisted on a computer with a closed system, one which cannot be altered by the user and is not compatible with outside components. One wonders if the word “monopoly” ever entered Jobs’s head. The system is so closed that the Mac cannot be physically opened unless one has special tools. Later, in flashback, Wozniak tells Jobs something along the lines of “computers aren’t supposed to have human flaws; I’m not going to put yours in one.” Wozniak is the guy with actual tech know-how and developed the open-ended Apple II computer, which was a financial success. The success was a double-edged sword, however, as the film’s narrative is that the failure of the Mac lead Apple to double-down on the Apple II and be afraid of further innovation, which proved to be Apple’s death knell. In this segment we’re also introduced to Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet) who seems to be the one employee Jobs respects, or at least tolerates, and who follows him from company to company with a loyalty that, given how Jobs is portrayed in this film, is inexplicable. Hoffman attempts to act as Jobs’s conscience, or reason, or connection other human beings. Occasionally she’s successful. Then there’s Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg), the man whose nuts and bolts skills create what Jobs merely has the power to ask for and who takes repeated verbal abuse from Jobs. Lastly, there’s John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), CEO of Apple and surrogate father to Jobs who has business know-how but little imagination.
Oh, but that’s actually not all. See, Jobs has a daughter named Lisa (played by different actresses in each segment), though he cruelly and callously denies parentage of her despite having some genuine feelings of affection for her buried not-too-deeply under his asshole visage. The mother of Lisa is Chrisann (Katherine Waterston), who is not portrayed positively but gets sympathy based solely on how cruelly Jobs treats her and how Jobs thinks throwing money at her is a solution to everything once he’s done ridiculing and threatening her. The relationship between Jobs and Lisa is used to contrast the relationship between Jobs and his computers. Jobs denies Lisa while trumpeting the Mac. Jobs warms to Lisa while lying about the Next computer, which he knows sucks but the technology didn’t catch up with his vision. Finally, Jobs makes peace with Lisa at the time he finally has a good product that people actually want, the iMac. This relationship between creator and creation is probably the main theme of the film. The funny conclusion to draw is that Lisa is a good person (we’re told and we have no reason to disbelieve) DESPITE Jobs as a parent. Similarly, given that Jobs seemingly has no technological, engineering, or coding knowledge or experience, his tech creations are similarly the works of other people. With the popularity of Apple, we forget that Jobs didn’t actually invent anything. He didn’t invent the internet, and the MP3 player and the smartphone would have been invented without a Steve Jobs ever having existed. Jobs did not create anything of use, and the film opens with a vintage film clip of “2001” author Arthur C. Clarke telling us what he thinks the future will look like (it’s scarily accurate) calling into question how much of a “visionary” Jobs even was. The film may be trying to subtly argue that Jobs is no more responsible for our tech-infused contemporary zeitgeist than he is for the person his daughter became. To the film, Jobs is not a prophet or a genius, he’s just a hyper-intelligent asshole who evolved into being a good salesman.
Again, it is possible that the film isn’t playing fair, and Jobs actually contributed more to tech and society at large than we’re shown here. It’s possible. But the film gives us a Jobs who is all flash, attitude, and cockiness, wrapped in intelligence but still having little substance beyond that. He doesn’t think of anything new, he doesn’t create anything new, he simply designs a pretty package (a disk slot that looks like a playful mouth, a perfect black cube, a colorful translucent box) and waits for the consumer to decide they want the pretty new thing. Steve Jobs wants to think he’s Bob Dylan or Alan Turing, but he’s really just a QVC program, telling you to act fast because supplies are limited, and giving you a choice of pretty colors to give you the illusion of choice when, really, you’re stuck with Jobs’s selfish, closed system.
Jobs doesn’t grow as a person in the film, but he does lighten up. The difference seems to be that society changes for the worse. In 1984 people base computer preferences on functionality, whereas in 1998 they seem to base it on hype, marketing, and aesthetics. Jobs didn’t get smarter, people got dumber, and in that sense the film may simply be arguing that Apple is nothing but hype, marketing, and aesthetics wrapped in a box of pretension, and so was Steve Jobs. Make no mistake, the film hates its main character in a way few films do, and the quasi-happy ending is not as happy as it appears. Ask yourself one question: did Jobs save that drawing because he loves his daughter, or because he loves himself?
“Steve Jobs” is a very good film, but it’s not for everyone. It’s tightly contained acts of mostly dialogue feel more stage-like than film-like, the film is pretty much nothing BUT dialogue, and the main character is an unlikable asshole. However, the film is excellently written, wonderfully acted, and wholly fascinating. Watching the film I was riveted, both happy and angry during every scene. “God sent his only son on a suicide mission, but we like him because he made trees.” The film is not just about creator and creation, but also about creation and viewer/user. We may not like Steve Jobs, but many people like Apple products. I may hate Capitalism, but there are consumer goods created under Capitalism (by workers) that I enjoy. Roman Polanski is a scumbag who drugged and anally raped a 13-year-old girl, but he’s directed great films. If we like something, we often excuse its creator and its origins. “Steve Jobs” tells us that maybe we shouldn’t, but if we do, the creation better be more like a tree and less like an iPad. B+