This article contains Steve Jobs spoilers.
With the movie not even in wide release, there has already been plenty written in the press about the historical accuracy (or lack thereof) in Steve Jobs. An undeniably searing and fiercely crafted piece of filmmaking from the director of Slumdog Millionaire and the screenwriter of The Social Network, this new big screen Jobs is depicted as a flawed, brilliant, monstrous, and fascinating contradiction.
Indeed, one could suggest that Jobs’ own infamous “reality distortion field” and his taste for mythmaking, which made millions believe the future fit inside their pocket, caused this movie to be especially sensitive to a media that is less prone to bat an eye at an invented rosebud inserted into the life of The Social Network’s Mark Zuckerberg, or that the John Nash of the Best Picture winning A Beautiful Mind was a nigh fictional character. By contrast, the truth and artifice surrounding Michael Fassbender’s turtleneck seems unusually poignant at the moment for many with a pen.
But it shouldn’t be. By its own elaborate conceit of taking place in real-time between three separate product launches—the Macintosh in 1984, the NeXT Cube in 1988, and the iMac in 1998—Steve Jobs is claiming massive artistic license by designing every scene out of whole cloth. None of these backstage confrontations occurred, and the impressionistic effect that they might leave is one that represents Aaron Sorkin and Danny Boyle’s understanding of the man’s life: not the people who closely knew him.
My personal knowledge of Steve Jobs primarily comes via Walter Isaacson’s very dense biography, as well as seeing the Alex Gibney documentary, Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine. I can say that Sorkin’s most negative moments for Jobs reflect his treatment of others throughout the Isaacson book, including Dan Kottke, John Sculley, and the daughter he denied for years, Lisa Brennan-Jobs. And I can also attest that the aforementioned documentary is far harsher with its cascading cynicism than anything Sorkin or Boyle portray in their Hollywood version. In fact, Steve Jobs focuses more on the visionary pioneer’s positive effect on the world than 120 minutes of combative, fact-based filmmaking—and unlike Gibney, Sorkin never even directly mentions the iPod or iPhone.
But when the scribe does slyly suggest that music playing marvel, it is one of the most intriguing movie moments of the year that can only come out of a cinematic artifice. Indeed, it’s an effect that is as profoundly perfect as when Mark Zuckerberg sits in front of his laptop, anxiously hoping for a reply from Rooney Mara’s fictitious Erica Albright:
As according to the world inside Steve Jobs, the Apple co-founder invented the iPod simply to reconnect with his daughter.
It’s purely Sorkin but it nevertheless works beautifully, giving the movie a greater soul than half the companies in Silicon Valley combined. In real life, Jobs likely ordered Jon Rubinstein to engineer such a product because the actual music player market was anemic in 2000. But in Steve Jobs, it is fair to interpret that the idea appeared to have come two years earlier from Jobs’ intensely unique relationship with his first daughter, Lisa.
The scene itself is a cathartic release in a two-hour movie that has raced through three consecutive ticking clocks and left audiences as breathless as any actor who has just given a full monologue in Sorkin-ese. Michael Fassbender as Steve Jobs, finally wearing some make-up to match the popular image of the bespectacled Apple CEO, desperately chases his daughter Lisa up to a parking garage rooftop and begs her to stay for his presentation of the iMac.
In the confines of the movie, the obvious irony is that this Steve Jobs refused to let Lisa stay for either of his previous keynote addresses, denying to even accept her as his progeny in ’84 and simply insisting she needed to be in school by ’88. Now when he decides he wants her in his life, he finds that his Harvard-bound daughter has no time for his condescension.
Undoubtedly, this moment is the “reconciliation” beat that audiences come to expect between protagonists and wayward children in the third act of any narrative. And in fact, Steve does convince Lisa to stay… but if you look a little closer, it is not as warm and fuzzy as the glossy surface level of translucent, candy-colored plastic would lead you to believe.
Before this moment, Steve Jobs has had no time for his daughter’s interests and does not even take the hint during the backstage drama behind the NeXT launch in ’88 from His Polish Girl Friday, Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), that Lisa is only asking him questions about his product to make him feel better—he should ask about how nine-year-old Lisa is feeling.
And yet, it is not until the parking garage that Steve does exactly that by insisting that he desperately wants to read one of the articles she’s written for Harvard’s legendary school paper, The Crimson. Using the patented “reality distortion” we witnessed him perform on both Joanna and Sculley earlier in the movie, he promises that he could care less (for once) if his product launch starts late; he will delay the future for his daughter.
This kind of change of heart would end the film in lesser hands. However, this reconciles nothing. An older Lisa, now played with loquacious and justified indignation by Perla Haney-Jardine, has had an entire childhood of emotional whiplash with this narcissistic man. He cannot play father five minutes before the end credits and be forgiven. And he’s not.
Steve’s sudden bid of fatherly compassion falls flat when Lisa exists the distortion field and heads closer to her car. It is only in this last frantic moment that Jobs has one of his bright ideas and doubles down on reality manipulaton. Searching for anything, he narrows his eyes on Lisa Brennan-Jobs’ dated Walkman accessory.
“I’m going to put a hundred songs in your pocket,” Fassbender delivers with the same optimistic and youthful pride that hooked Sculley in an earlier flashback. “A thousand songs. Somewhere between 500 and one thousand songs.” With a proclamation of manifest destiny, Steve Jobs has finally connected with his daughter but not as a father. He has reached out to her as a an entrepreneurial visionary that saw into the future and made Arthur C. Clarke’s 1960s prophecies a little closer to our reality.
Upon first viewing, I tended to consider this simply a wink to the iPod. But now, it becomes clearer to me after a second viewing that the movie is stating that this is the moment he thought up the iPod, the product that helped Jobs revolutionize the music industry with iTunes and indirectly led him to his greatest “tectonic shift in the status quo” with the iPhone nine years later. It all stemmed from judging the tackiness of a Walkman on his daughter’s personage as something he could improve in her personal life—a genuine gift from father to daughter.
Consider that he wasn’t even sure how many songs he could fit in his imagined music player (it ended up being marketed as a thousand in its first generation) but that he cast a wide enough net that it ensnared Lisa to stay. Only then does she come backstage and watches Jobs stroll victoriously into the international spotlight. In that moment, she finally sees him as the world does: a mad prophet from another world. Lisa now understands the universe on his terms.
Fassbender is, as he is throughout the movie, sublime in this moment. He has his iMac ready to change Apple’s fortunes and the destiny of personal computing, and he has his daughter that he once threw away staring in awe at him behind a curtain… just like everyone else. Jobs’ final smile is of a man who has his thousand songs and is about to play them too.
Of course, this confrontation before the iMac keynote never happened. Steve and Lisa “reconciled” in some capacity during her teenage years when she lived with Steve Jobs and his new family with wife Laurene Powell Jobs. However, they did have other frictions including over how Lisa’s mother sold their house. Also, Steve Jobs in 1998 had not even yet mastered his iconic jeans-and-black-turtleneck persona yet. That came a few years later.
In short, Steve Jobs didn’t even look like “Steve Jobs” on the movie’s most fateful day.
But in the reality of this film, it hits a curious truth. Obviously, Jobs’ forever complicated relationship with his first daughter crossed over into his professional life since he named the first computer he personally oversaw the development of “Lisa.” This was also during a period where he refused to accept Lisa was his daughter, even making excuses to Time after a paternity test proved otherwise.
In the movie, it takes on literally Shakespearian implications. If Zuckerberg was Sorkin’s Citizen Kane, right down to his desperate wish for reunification with the innocence he lost, Sorkin’s “Steve Jobs” is a King Lear of sorts. Throughout the film, he has ignored Lisa in favor of three other children of glass, aluminum, and plastic. But the Macintosh led to his banishment from Apple, and NeXT turned out just to be a failed product altogether. Yet, the iMac finally validated his brilliance with marketplace dominance. Still, the iMac is not the one true daughter whose love he has squandered like the Bard’s old mad king.
Arguably, Jobs realized that too late in this movie’s distorted reality field since she is already on the other side of the country for her first semester of college. But by connecting with her through a product that is even more personal than the ill-fated “Lisa” computer, he finally has the ability to make a dent in the universe. With the iPod conceptualization, he paved the way for Apple dominance in all fields, including when the iPhone was initially dreamed up as a preemptive measure of protecting iPod market superiority (a smartphone that could hold a thousand songs might have one day eaten Apple’s lunch; so they ate it themselves).
What does this have to do with the actual historical facts of the iPod or even Steve and Lisa’s relationship? I have no idea but I’d wager not much. However, art is meant to find its own truth that audiences can emphatically understand, and Steve Jobs is a cinematic high-wire act that proves indeed to be a work of art. Factual or not, on some level, I suspect Steve Jobs would respect this more than fawning hagiography.
Also, for what it’s worth, in addition to the publicized support from Steve Wozniak, Sorkin had the real Lisa Brennan-Jobs consult on the film. That might be worth chewing on before disregarding the heart of a biographic movie with an actual pulse.