Steve Jobs was renowned and feared for his reality distortion field. Depending on whom you asked, he could make a digital closed system unicorn appear out of thin air or conjure visions of the most impossibly hellish landscape as your workplace. A spinner of myths in his own right, it’s not a mystery why Hollywood has been so eager to spin a few about him.
But what makes Danny Boyle and Aaron Sorkin’s take on the Apple co-founder unique is how much more unapologetically interested it is in that legend—and not the generic biopic one we’ve all seen before. Rather than tracing as much of his life as can be squeezed into a two-hour checklist, the businessman who always imagined himself an artist now has his life explored with the artistic temperament.
If Sorkin’s screenplay for The Social Network turned Mark Zuckerberg into Charles Foster Kane, Steve Jobs morphs its Silicon Valley anti-hero into King Lear. Only this time, the neglected daughter of the passion play is supplanted by three siblings of glass and aluminum: the Macintosh; the NeXT cube; and the iMac.
As has been well publicized, the novel approach Sorkin took in adapting Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs to the screen was to legitimately turn the visionary’s passion into a three-act play. Eschewing, the traditional aspects of a biopic, Steve Jobs jettisons the most well worn beats of Apple lore: Jobs seducing John Sculley to Palo Alto with the words, “Do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life?” Gone. The original sin of Bill Gates and Microsoft’s betrayal of the Mac? Not even mentioned. There’s hardly even the faintest wink at the iPod.
Instead, Steve Jobs narrows its focus to the presentation of of three product launches. Taking place strictly during behind-the-scenes scuffles at these career-defining moments in 1984, 1988, and 1998, the film barely considers Jobs’ cultural impact, including on the music industry, publishing, or in ushering in the smartphones and tablets you’re probably reading this review on right now.
The logic to this is two-fold. On the first count, most viewers are aware of Jobs (or at least Apple’s) legacy, and Boyle and Sorkin want to get closer toward what made the man tick. But more importantly, it gives the film dramatic leeway to only focus on whichever personal threads it wishes to weave into these events with heavy artistic license.
This isn’t a movie about the man who made personal computers cool; it’s a theatrical interpretation about how such a person could interact with the people around him, most particularly Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), marketing leader and Jobs’ Girl Friday, Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), former Apple CEO John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), Macintosh guru Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg), and the mother of the child Jobs would not admit was his daughter. Chrisann Brennan is played here by Katherine Waterston, but her and Jobs’ daughter, Lisa, is played by several young actresses, all of whom are brutally ignored by the film’s protagonist.
Apple’s current CEO Tim Cook has expressed caution about the movie and for understandable reason. His predecessor and Apple’s martyred saint had his life placed in the hands of the same screenwriter that turned Facebook’s inventor into Millennial shorthand for Evil Big Business. And quite honestly, while Steve Jobs is in every scene of this technological character portrait, he comes off as a greater movie monster than Zuckerberg ever did. For all his faults, Sorkin’s Zuckerberg never coldly turned his back on a daughter living in welfare or threatened a person he considered a friend with public humiliation and disgrace.
There has been much in the media made about Steve Jobs’ transition from Sony to Universal, but an October release from the studio most synonymous with horror is pretty perfect for this character study.
Yet, audiences will still come away liking the man. And credit for such a feat must be first given to Michael Fassbender. Despite bearing little physical resemblance or even shared mannerisms to the actual Steve Jobs—a quality that Boyle commendably chose not to hide with ridiculous pieces of prosthetics—Fassbender gives a tour de force performance by embodying his essence.
Fassbender is in every single scene of the movie with more Sorkin dialogue than entire seasons of The Newsroom and The West Wing combined. But Fassbender still makes it look effortless as he both captivates and emulates the same reality distortion field Jobs was so infamously credited with creating. In spite of Jobs being a bastard to every other character in the movie, he and Fassbender both spin a dizzying fantasy so seductive that we get ensnared in Jobs’ techno-idealism and with the conceit that Fassbender really is one of the most photographed men of the 20th and 21st centuries.
This will be the performance that makes Fassbender a household name, even if it might prove too pitch black for the Academy.
The rest of the cast impresses well enough. Winslet is predictably unflappable, even with a shaky Polish accent, and Rogen is quite good as Woz, the gentle best friend Steve keeps kicking down to a breaking point. However, the real emotional standout is Daniels as John Sculley, the would-be father figure that Jobs brought into Apple and who the company’s zealots would say then betrayed the genius like Judas in the Garden of Gethsemane.
For the film’s most extended flashback, Boyle’s account for Jobs’ banishment from the company takes on a sinister noir slant of Dutch angles and pitiless shadows. Still, one instantly realizes Sorkin sympathizes with Sculley. It is difficult being a mere mortal standing next to a genius’ sun, especially when that genius wants to snuff out your own light. This version of Jobs is probably wrong to raise a hand at his false father, and it does indeed end in over a decade of exile. But it’s also the strongest thread of a movie that constantly flirts with tragedy but only consummates it here.
The movie’s other real anchor remains the daughter Jobs left behind for most of her childhood. It’s the great failing that many suspect cost Jobs a “Man of the Year” title in Time Magazine in 1984. And it might seem curiously harsh to make that the centerpiece of the film. Yet along with the crocodile tears for Sculley or even Wozniak, it proves a point about Jobs’ charisma and cultural influence: even with this knowledge of massive personal failing, we marvel at him anyway. It’s the real-life inexplicable inverse to The Social Network’s Zuckerberg, who is reassured he’s not an asshole at that film’s end. Jobs certainly is one, and like everyone else in the film we cannot help but admire him all the more.
Ultimately, this is a film of paradoxes. Jobs could inspire worship but still loved to torment employees and friends; he became a ruthless billionaire CEO but dreamed of being a counterculture artist; he never engineered his computers but is not inaccurately credited with changing the world; and he revolutionized almost every form of business but never figured out how to connect to his first daughter.
Steve Jobs nestles into the ethical conundrum of deifying such a man almost to an indulgent degree. The film is not precisely perfect like Network and strangely can feel stage-bound in spite of its original script, but the force of the reality distortion field is strong with this one. In fact, it can ignore huge swaths of Jobs’ life that would enormously aid in audience sympathy—such as saving Pixar or having three loved children in a later healthy marriage—and still somehow makes him every bit worth his myth.
Steve Jobs is both horror and hagiography. It turns out those things are not binary.