“Musicians play their instruments. I play the orchestra.” – Steve Jobs
It’s no question that Steve Jobs is one of the most controversial, yet influential figures in the history of modern technology. He has been revered, despised and ultimately, mythologized. Elements of his personality have passed into urban legend, while other verifiable encounters only help to contribute to his very distinct personality traits. Tim Cook and others who were close to Steve Jobs adamantly defend his character, and it’s understandable as the incomplete portraits of Steve Jobs up to this point hardly tell the whole story. Seeing the previews, there were certainly some concerns that Aaron Sorkin and Danny Boyle’s interpretation would only work to worsen the collective memory of Steve Jobs, but as it turns out, Sorkin’s interpretation is probably one of the more complete pictures that we could hope to experience in a short 90 minutes. Set in 3, 30-minute scenes that occur in real time shortly before three separate launch events, “Steve Jobs” intertwines the complications and stress of preparing for large scale launch events set against the backdrop of Steve Jobs various notable relationships, namely his relationships with Steve Wozniak, John Sculley, Joanna Hoffman and his estranged daughter Lisa Brennan.
The three-act structure of the film is executed spectacularly. The first act, set backstage before the launch of the Macintosh in 1984, highlights much of the Steve Jobs persona that we’ve grown accustomed to hearing about: a shouting, intimidating Steve Jobs barks orders at hapless engineers and engages in hostile arguments with his estranged ex-girlfriend, Chrisann Brennan. At the center of their arguments is Lisa Brennan, a daughter he insists isn’t his, but will play a central role in his development throughout the film. Along the way he laments being supposedly snubbed by Time magazine and bickers with his good friend and confidant, Joanna Hoffman (played by Kate Winslet), who also happens to be the only one who can help manage his expectations. Wozniak (played by Seth Rogen) asks Steve to recognize the Apple II team at the introduction of the Macintosh, but Steve believes the machine is in the past and has no qualms with disregarding the team. This disagreement sows a seed of resentment and anger that Wozniak carries throughout the film, as it plays a central role in their disagreements across all three acts.
Seth Rogen does well as Wozniak, though the eccentric and opinionated co-founder of Apple has admitted that many of the screaming matches portrayed in the film either didn’t happen as they were depicted, or didn’t happen that way at all. It’s a “movie about personalities”, and Rogen represents the frustration and anger that Wozniak felt exceptionally well.
“You don’t write code…you’re not an engineer…you can’t put a hammer to a nail. What do you do?” – Steve Wozniak
Overall, in the first act Steve Jobs doesn’t demonstrate many redeeming qualities aside from his dedication to introducing an invention that will “dent the universe”, and Fassbender’s interpretation of Jobs makes it easy to feel this excitement that borderlines insanity. Right away I could tell that Michael Fassbender’s interpretation of Jobs is superior by many orders of magnitude than anything Ashton Kutcher could ever hope to accomplish. Though his “look” is not what people would expect, he is thoroughly convincing as a figure both fearless and insecure, hostile and protective, a man who isn’t necessarily always right, but never wrong. Fassbender is commanding as Jobs and provides a strong foundation upon which the other exceptional performances can easily stand.
In the opening act we also get a brief introduction to John Sculley, played by Jeff Daniels, the former CEO of Pepsi who was famously recruited by Jobs with the line “Do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life, or do you want to come with me and change the world?”
Act two, set backstage at the introduction of the NeXT computer in 1988, is where the movie really takes off. A particularly powerful exchange between Jobs and Sculley left the entire theater breathless, and this was really the theme for the rest of the film, as it revolved largely around impassioned, authentic confrontations that were charged with years of regret, anger and resentment. It is also helpful to dispel an oft-repeated moment in Apple’s history regarding the ousting of Steve Jobs, and does well to explain how Jobs ultimately forced Sculley’s hand. Jeff Daniels’ Sculley is a great complement to Jobs in the 2nd act, and serves as a key figure in act 3 in rounding out Jobs’ arc of redemption.
“You’re issuing contradictory instructions, you’re insubordinate, and you make people miserable.” -John Sculley
The film culminates in the third act, which takes place in 1998 right before the introduction of the new iMac. The decade that it skips between his endeavors at NeXT and his eventual revival at Apple is full of consequential events in Jobs’ life, including his work building and defining the Pixar brand. He also grew significantly as a leader and manager in this time, and we can certainly see a transformed Jobs in the third act. The scene opens with him smiling and joking about the presentation to an auditorium full of staff. He’s thanking people, giving out praise, overall he seems to be on top of the world, and for good reason: projections are suggesting the iMac is going to be a huge commercial success. However, things certainly aren’t perfect. Lisa and Jobs are estranged following a particularly nasty disagreement, which leaves Hoffman at her wits end as she implores Steve to “make it right”. If you don’t realize before this point, by the third act you’ll find Winslet’s performance as Hoffman is probably second only to Fassbender’s. Her emotional and angry plea with Jobs to patch things up with his daughter brings to the forefront an uncomfortable energy she has from the start of the film. Their relationship is a unique one, it would have to be for her to remain so close to such a difficult character for nearly two decades, and yet she admits that it kills her to see how Jobs treated Lisa in the early years.
“What you make isn’t supposed to be the best part of you when you’re a father. That’s what’s supposed to be the best part of you.” -Joanna Hoffman
Lisa Brennan also gets a chance to take center stage in the third act. Though present in the first two acts as a catalyst for larger conversations between Jobs and Chrisann, Lisa has come into her own by 1998, and is attending Harvard. Being a young adult and having access to the vast information that the internet provides, Lisa reveals that she came across a damning Time article from 1984 in which Jobs claims that “28% of the American male population could be her (Lisa’s) father”. An upset Lisa than insults the design of the new iMac and storms off. Though Jobs would be hard pressed to admit it, Lisa’s approval means something to him, and his struggle to repair their relationship in the final act is a powerful and moving testament to his development over the course of 14 years.
“That *pointing to iMac ad* looks like Judy Jetson’s E-Z bake oven!” – Lisa Brennan-Jobs
Overall, “Steve Jobs” does its best to portray a well-rounded picture of the man for whom perfection was the only option. Yet, even though perfection was what he demanded, a telling line from near the end of the film reveals uncertainties that Jobs has about himself. “I’m made poorly…” he confesses to his daughter, Lisa, following a particularly heated exchange. In the end, that’s a major element of Sorkin and Boyle’s interpretation of Jobs. Not that he was evil or a fraud…but that he was just a man. He was imperfect, and part of his imperfection was his inability to see it.
In short, Sorkin and Boyle have succeeded in creating a powerful and lasting biopic on one of the most consequential figures in the modern history of tech. It is absolutely worth a watch, and will definitely be added to my collection once it’s out on blu-ray.
Verdict: Aaron Sorkin said that his interpretation of Steve Jobs is more of a painting than a photograph. If that’s the case, it should be in the Lourve.