Steve Jobs

February 12, 2016
Michael Fassbender in 'Steve Jobs' (2015)
Michael Fassbender in 'Steve Jobs' (2015)

In his documentary of last year, Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine, Alex Gibney analysed the worldwide outpouring of grief that followed the death of the tech guru in 2011. It seemed remarkable that so many people were in tears for a man they’d never met. “I think we were weeping for the loss of future products,” was Gibney’s diagnosis.

For better or worse, Steve Jobs, who took Apple from the brink of bankruptcy and made it into the most successful company in the world, has become an icon of our age. Since his death there have been at least six documentaries and two feature films. Jobs (2013) by Joshua Michael Stern, with Ashton Kutcher in the title role, was a clumsy, schematic affair. Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs, with a script by Aaron Sorkin, and Michael Fassbender playing the lead, is as much of an advance on the previous model as the iPod was on the Newton.

The key is the ingenious idea of structuring the movie around three product launches: the MacIntosh in 1984, the NeXT cube in 1988, and – finally and triumphantly – the iMac in 1998. Along the way we watch Jobs morph from an intense jerk who wears a blazer and a bowtie, to an intense jerk in trademark black polo neck and jeans.

Before each event Jobs is confronted with a raft of problems – personal, technical and professional. As the clock ticks down to a crucial presentation in front of thousands of journalists and industry insiders, he is set upon by family members, friends and colleagues. It’s stressful to watch, let alone imagine what is going through Jobs’s mind. There is a good deal of poetic licence in these impossibly tense pre-launches, but more drama than one would have imagined possible from a computer sales pitch.

Even though he is examined microscopically in this movie, Jobs remains an enigma. He may have been a visionary, inspirational leader but was also, as his friend Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen) puts it succinctly, “an asshole”. We see Jobs denying the paternity of his daughter, Lisa (Makenzie Moss), and withholding support money from her mother, Chrisann (Katherine Waterston) when money is not an issue. He refuses to acknowledge the work of colleagues upon which his own success is founded. He is ruthless, selfish, and unconcerned what others think of him.

The person who holds it all together is his PA, Joanna Hoffmann (Kate Winslet), who acts as trouble-shooter and life coach – even if Jobs is unwilling to take her advice. This is a great, uncharacteristic role for Winslet, who has to play an assertive second fiddle. Joanna is loyal to the point of idolatry, but seething with frustration. In Stern’s film this character was all but invisible.

By basing the movie around the three product launches, Boyle and Sorkin avoid the tedious scene-setting and biographical detail that cluttered up the 2013 movie. We get a taut, punchy narrative that might almost be a stage play. Apart from a few brief flashbacks all the personal history and psychologising is contained within the dialogue, as Jobs trades insults with old friends such as Wozniak and Andy Hertzfeld (Mark Stuhlbarg); and jousts with John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), who ousted him as Apple CEO, and was ousted in turn, as the company’s fortunes dived.

It may be true that people are always pacing and arguing in Sorkin’s films, but it’s a routine that keeps us glued to the screen. Combined with Danny Boyle’s dynamic, almost expressionist use of camera angles and close-ups, viewers are never given the chance to step back and reflect on the unlikely nature of many scenes.

The filmmakers have aimed for psychological realism while playing fast and loose with the biographical details. Apple, forever protective of its legendary CEO, has already denounced the movie. This is hardly a surprise, as the company also objected to Alex Gibney’s non-fictional portrayal of Jobs’s contradictions.

There is a certain symmetry between this film and Sorkin’s take on Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg, in The Social Network. That film suggested the driving force behind Facebook was the nerdy Zuckerberg’s inability to get a girlfriend. For Jobs the relationship with his daughter, played by three separate actresses, represents the Shakespearean flaw in his character. By all accounts it is also very far from the truth, as Lisa actually lived with her father and his new family for many years. That family doesn’t rate a mention in the film, with all the emotional baggage being piled on the shoulders of Jobs’s “work wife”, Joanna.

Because this is the movies, not life itself, it could be argued there is no right or wrong, only convincing or unconvincing. Art is a big lie, and even the most scrupulously researched portrayals contain a large element of fiction. Steve Jobs has more than its share of fabulations, but no-one could say it doesn’t work as a story. Yet despite Sorkin’s finesse, and Fassbender’s persuasive performance, there is still a disjunction between the need to show Jobs as an abrasive personality and his achievements as an entrepreneur who made us feel each product was a life-changing spiritual experience.

In most movies the bad guy gets his just desserts, but Jobs was an asshole who conquered the world – which sets a terrible example for all the assholes who run major companies, returning us to the Machiavellian doctrine that the ends justify the means.

Apart from one memorable retort by Wozniak, who says: “You can be decent and gifted at the same time. It’s not binary,” we are allowed to believe that Jobs’s apotheosis is a function of his bad behaviour. The Apple company need not feel too anxious about this movie, because whatever liberties have been taken with the details, the myth of Steve Jobs remains inviolate.

Steve Jobs
Directed by Danny Boyle
Written by Aaron Sorkin, after a book by Walter Isaacson
Starring Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Seth Rogen, Jeff Daniels, Michael Stuhlbarg, Katherine Waterston, Sarah Snook
USA/UK, rated M, 122 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 13th February, 2016.