steve jobs (2015)
Written by Aaron Sorkin
Directed by Danny Boyle
Heroes can often be rotten people behind the scenes. Steve Jobs, while often canonized as a saint of American industry and technology, was not a very nice person, especially to the daughter he denied for decades. When making a film about the creator of the revolutionary Macintosh computer, it would be easy to go the usual biopic route that displays all sorts of corny and cliched foreshadowing that can make the audience think themselves clever. Instead, writer Aaron Sorkin structures this film like a three-act stage play with each act being the minutes before one of Jobs famous unveilings. 1984’s Macintosh reveal, 1988’s embarrassing NeXT launch, and 1998’s glorious return to glory iMac announcement. There are repetitious refrains, almost like a piece of music, characters as themes returning in variation. All of this adds up to a brutally honest portrayal of Steve Jobs that doesn’t seek to frame him as a “great man” but a flawed man with some great ideas.
Jobs is surrounded by five key figures in every act of the film: His business partner Steve Wozniak, his marketing head Joanna Hoffman, an engineer and old friend Andy Hertzfeld, Apple CEO John Sculley, and his estranged daughter Lisa. These are not true to life interactions but dramatic opportunities to explore Jobs and his penchant for lies and as Hoffman calls it “the reality distortion field.” Jobs likes to remember things as they are comfortable for him, even creating an algorithm to prove, despite a 91% certainty of his parentage, that he could not be Lisa’s father. He fees the media stories of his dishonorable firing from the company he founded even though in a moment of arrogance, he chose to storm away.
Is this a great movie about Steve Jobs? I’m not so sure. It is an excellent showcase for Aaron Sorkin’s writing and the acting talents of the impressive cast. Michael Fassbender is in the title role, and he has a career of making even bad films just tolerable enough because of his presence (I’m looking at you Prometheus and Alien: Covenant). Is he playing Steve Jobs or a character of his invention? I think the film leans more towards the latter. Michael Stuhlbarg is a standout for me in every movie he works on a consummate performer who seems destined to be a leading man level character actor for the breadth of his career. Like Fassbender, Stuhlbarg is making a habit of being the best things about a lot of below par movies.
The intent in what Sorkin and director Danny Boyle are doing here is to emphasize that greatness of ideas and legacy rarely corresponds to goodness in the person. There is a sort of tyranny needed to get world-changing ideas pushed through. If something is remarkable enough, then there will be considerable pushback from a mass of people who are afraid of the change that will occur. You will have number crunchers who cannot see past budgets and costs. You’ll find those who can’t fathom the idea, unable to make heads or tails of it. Sorkin and Boyle are saying the world would not be how it is if Steve Jobs sought out the opinions of Wozniak or Sculley. On the flipside, Jobs loses so many years where he could have owned up to being Lisa’s father and instead puts her through hell. There’s a third act push to try and resolve the conflict, and that is the one part that rang hollow to me.
Steve Jobs is a film that is more psychological profile than a life story. You can read about Jobs’ life in many venues, but something that probes his psyche like this is much rarer. There is little concern for who was exactly where and when and the film has to fudge the logistics to accomplish its goal. Imperfection is always more interesting than creating a false narrative of godlike historical figures. I don’t expect this movie to change the majority of popular takes on the tech maven, but it adds a complicated and interesting wrinkle to the mix.