A Movie Not About the “Real” Steve Jobs, But the “Idea” of Steve Jobs

steve jobs 2

From the moment this project was announced, I felt deeply in my heart that I did not need to see a movie about Steve Jobs. In case that name doesn’t a ring bell -and I truly congratulate you if you’ve managed to avoid learning who this man was-, Jobs was the idolized co-founder and CEO of Apple Computers. Even if you, like me, don’t understand the nature of the cult of personality that developed around Jobs, you have to recognize the fascinating anomaly of a man being able to be respected (and beloved) to the level that virtually no other businessman had been since the days of Henry Ford and Thomas Edison.

The comparisons don’t stop there. From most accounts, Jobs -just like Ford and Edison- was kind of a massive jerk. This seems to be the aspect of Jobs’s life that interested screenwriter Aaron Sorkin the most. Sorkin most probably got this gig thanks to his Oscar-winning screenplay for The Social Networkin which he turned the founding of Facebook into the most Shakespearean tragedy of the computer age. Similarly, Sorkin -who is notoriously not a fan of technology- is not really interested in the technicalities of Jobs’s work as a “computer guy”, but in the nature of his public image. How exactly could this deeply flawed man become an icon of such ridiculous proportions?

Sorkin’s way of getting the audience to think about this man’s ironies and contradictions is to not try to create a realistic and historically accurate portrait of Steve Jobs, but to present the character in a slick package, as meticulously designed as the gadgets he sold for a living. Sorkin’s characterization of Jobs is purposely unoriginal. As a man who is simultaneously an incredibly smart genius and a huge megalomaniac, this Steve Jobs instantly reminds us of characters like Don Draper, Dr. Gregory House, or Sorkin’s own Will McAvoy. He fits perfectly into the contemporary archetype of the television antihero.

The link between real-life person and archetypal character results in an almost Brechtian analysis of the character on part of the audience. Jobs is presented in the widely successful package of the antihero: he is smart, charismatic, and brilliant, yet at the same time he is egocentric, rude, and flawed. He doesn’t get along with his partners, he barely respects the people that work for him, and he refuses to recognize his daughter as his own. These are all flaws that would fit perfectly with the protagonist of the newest HBO drama. However, knowing that Jobs was a real man, makes the audience consider the character’s actions if they were coming from an actual human being. The M.O. of a “cool” antihero can become seriously fucked up when applied to real life.

But characterization is not the only tool at use here. Sorkin’s script is exclusively built around the concept of packaging and self-imaging. The most obvious choice in this regard is the writer’s decision to structure the film around three days in Jobs’s life: the 1984 launch of the Mac computer, the 1988 launch of the “Next”, and the 1998 launch of the iMac. We follow Jobs behind the scenes on these three pivotal dates, as he stressfully prepares to go up on stage and give a presentation designed to sell a product. At one point in the movie someone asks Jobs something along the lines of: “you don’t write code, you don’t know anything about computers, and yet you’re called a genius… what do you do?”. Well, Jobs is not a genius engineer, he is a genius salesman. And his image is his most valuable product.

The man playing Jobs in this movie is Michael Fassbender, one of the hottest -in every sense of the word- actors in Hollywood right now. He doesn’t really look or sound all that much like the real Steve Jobs, but it doesn’t matter. Fassbender is a masterful actor, and a fantastic salesman when it comes to making an audience believe that he is the smartest, coolest man in the world. He is assisted by a tremendous supporting cast that includes Seth Rogen, Michael Stuhlbarg, Katherine Waterston, Jeff Daniels, and a stand-out performance by Kate Winslet as Joanna Hoffman, Jobs’s right-hand marketing woman. The scenes between Fassbender and Winslet are electrified with a sense of lively momentum. It isn’t surprising that they’re on the same page, they are playing the two characters who are experts at selling stuff.

Sorkin is at the top of his game here, and so are the actors. Steve Jobs itself is presented in a slick package: rapid-fire dialogue, clever characters, a tight race-against-the-clock setting, everything flows beautifully from start to finish… except maybe the end of the movie. The biggest emotional arc throughout the film is probably the relationship between Steve and Lisa, the daughter that he refused to recognize. Trying not to spoil the movie, I will say that the last moments of the movie focus on a pivotal point of this relationship, and culminate on a sentimental note that felt uncharacteristically happy considering the film that preceded it.

I’ve now written 800 words and have not once mentioned the director of this movie. This is, of course, no coincidence. Danny Boyle (TrainspottingSlumdog Millionaire) does truly remarkable work directing this movie’s brilliant ensemble, and he makes some inspired visual choices such as filming each of the movie’s three segments using different formats (16mm film, 35mm film, and digital video respectively), but he is a very hyperactive director, and a lot of his stylistic choices seem desperately heavy-handed, as if he was trying to put his personal stamp on a movie that seemed to overwhelmingly belong to Sorkin’s script.

Boyle’s heavy hand becomes clear in the ending sequence I mentioned before. The scene is shot in slow-motion, features literal flashing lights, and is underscored by an apotheotic piece of music (the score by Daniel Pemberton is actually very fun and smart outside of this last moment). One cannot forget that this moment was written by Sorkin, and he is also responsible if it ends up being ineffective. However, if there was any room for nuance in the interpretation of the moment, it was stripped away by Boyle’s operatic direction of the scene. There is no question that this moment is supposed to be a triumph.

There are many moments throughout this movie in which Boyle decides to either cut or have his camera focus on an image of painfully obvious thematic importance, and none bothered me more than that last scene. However, the more I think about it, the more I am willing to consider the possibility that Boyle’s sledgehammer hand might actually have helped the ending. This is, after all, a movie about self-image and selling oneself as a brand. Could the flashes and swelling music of Steve and Lisa’s reconciliation be just the surface of a darker moment? After getting a whole picture of the darker side of this man’s personality, isn’t it fitting that a moment of triumph lands with discomfort? Whether or not Boyle intended for the moment to be a triumph is beyond the point. Whether or not the discomfort elevates the movie is the conversation that matters.

Grade: 7 out of 10.

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6 comments

  1. smilingldsgirl · October 9, 2015

    You should read Creativity Inc. It is a fascinating history of Pixar by Ed Catmull. In that book you do get an idea of the jerky side of Steve Jobs but also how he believed in people and pushed people. I feel like people seem to expect bosses these days to be candy and roses. You hear the same criticisms of Walt Disney that you hear for Jobs. They ran massive companies so of course they had egos and were jerks. Anyway, glad to hear the movie is good. Look forward to this one.

    • Conrado Falco · October 9, 2015

      I personally think there’s a way to push people so they can achieve something and being a jerk. I feel like the idea that these “geniuses” were jerks because they wanted to push people gives other people the excuse to be assholes thinking that’s how they’re going to be a good boss/a genius. It just doesn’t sit well with me.

      Anyway, since you mentioned Disney, I just watched a two-part “American Experience” on Walt Disney that aired on PBS a couple of weeks ago. It should be really interesting to anyone interested in his life. I think you can stream it for free in the PBS website, in case you’re interested.

      • smilingldsgirl · October 9, 2015

        I guess I can see both sides. Part of being a good leader means you can’t treat people with kid gloves all the time but you are right you shouldn’t be a Scrooge either. Everyone I’ve heard that actually worked for Walt has said when he did chew people out it was rare and usually deserved. But anyway, the documentary was good. He’s someone I would have liked to eat a meal with and hear about all his great ideas. Him and Jobs were such bold thinkers. I appreciate that. Will definitely be seeing Steve Jobs and will let you know what I think.

  2. smilingldsgirl · October 9, 2015

    Or I should say of course they were jerks sometimes.

  3. The Animation Commendation · October 9, 2015

    I’m not a fan of Steve Jobs, so I have no interest in this movie.

    • Conrado Falco · October 10, 2015

      For what it’s worth, neither was I, and I was very pleasantly surprised.

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