Most people tend to describe Apple Computers guru Steve Jobs as a “genius” or a “visionary,” and it cannot be argued that the machines he helped distribute not only changed the way we view and purchase consumer-grade technology, but helped alter the very way we view functional design. There are millions of people who don’t just admire Steve Jobs, but whose enthusiasm for the man approaches that of a rabid cult. Steve Jobs was a genius, but only for marketing and packaging and business. He was not an engineer, and not even much of a designer. What he managed to unlock was that consumer electronics should perhaps be designed in such a way that average consumers would want to purchase them. He wrangled engineers and marketer to make computers look friendly. He collapsed art into a vague form of easy-on-the-eyes graphic design, and made consumers feel comforted while they were being exploited. In a Jobs-created world where aesthetics are more important than beauty, that is genius, I suppose.
In Danny Boyle’s new biopic Steve Jobs (not to be confused with the awful 2013 biopic Jobs starring Ashton Kucther) the man in question (portrayed very well by Michael Fassbender, never mind that he looksand sounds nothing like Jobs) is depicted as a theatrically enhanced version of himself. Here, he’s a quick-talking, sharp-witted, Machiavellian schemer who actively and constantly denies those who either helped his company become successful (he never once credits Steve Wozniak, plays by Seth Rogen, for developing the Apple II), and, more notably, spends 19 years denying that his daughter Lisa was actually his.
As written wonderfully by Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network), Jobs is a master of obfuscation and witty denial, constantly deflecting and distracting whenever one of his associates chooses to be even mildly confrontational about a bad decision or character flaw he might have, spinning his unforgiving mild cruelties into acts of business savvy, often employing nonsensical buzz phrases like “we’re building the future.” Jobs admits to nothing, even though many of those closest to him – most notably his personal assistant Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet) and his plain-spoken boss-cum-father-figure John Sculley (Jeff Daniels) – were openly able to see through his elaborate network of masterful bullshitting.
Steve Jobs is theatrical in the best possible sense, keeping the settings and the time spans limited, and the dialogue exhilaratingly snappy. The film is constructed in three acts, each one taking place backstage immediately before the launch of a notable Steve Jobs product: The Macintosh in 1984, the ill-fated NeXT in 1988, and the iMac in 1998. Each launch gives Jobs’ followers, employees, bosses, biographers, and family members a chance to confront Jobs about his shortcomings, and allow him a chance to show off how much he is unaffected by normal humanity. The staginess of the movie is its greatest benefit, allowing the characters and the dialogue to shine. Boyle, however, is not a director to be contained in dry rooms, and he allows this theatrical drama to move, via music and editing, into the realm of real cinema. It may be stagey, but make no mistake, it crackles and moves like a motherfucker.
Aaron Sorkin has now written two excellent films about the personalities behind our most widely consumed computer products, and he seems to have unlocked something vital about the way we have come to communicate in the internet age. The men behind Apple and Facebook are both – it seems – awkward, mean-spirited, genius sociopaths who have eschewed actual humanity for a computerized facsimile, and hope to share their antisocial vision with the world. These computer products may be addictive, necessary communication machines, but there is an inherent antisocial element to them; both Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg wish to hide oneself rather than share. Sorkin is savvy about showing both the benefits and the detriments of these men’s creations, and seems to distantly lament how eager most of the world was to eat up these machines. We seemed to be unwittingly empowering selfish men, and perhaps just as unwittingly absorbing some of that selfishness in the process.
The 2013 film sought – irresponsibly – to exonerate all of Jobs’ bad behavior by virtue of his popularity. It was a film that was clearly made by a member of his cult, which saw financial success and marketplace popularity as being a superior moral code than, well, common morality. It was, in short, a film made from Jobs’ point of view. Boyle and Sorkin are too smart to succumb to bland histrionics and idle hero worship. They see Jobs’ point of view, and indicate that, while he may have been right about many things, was, at the very least, a frustrating man to deal with. It is an eloquent, erudite, and insightful film.