Editor’s Notes: Steve Jobs is currently out in limited theatrical release.
By many, if not most, accounts, Steve Jobs was cold, cruel, callous, a visionary with a sociopathic streak, tossing aside family and friends to achieve his dreams. Jobs’ ruthlessness isn’t anything new, but Jobs’ cult of personality, Jobs’ cult of celebrity was and continues to be unprecedented in corporate America. Literally the face of Apple, Jobs offered consumers a direct link, a connection that seemingly transcended mere product purchases. Jobs’ “Think Different” (except really, it meant “Think Like Steve”) was part of a cult of personality/celebrity that offered an intimate connection – or rather a reasonable facsimile of one – between the consumer and Jobs. It simultaneously flattered consumers for their apparent uniqueness, their willingness to stand apart from the PC herd while folding them into the Apple family. Jobs intuitively understood marketing and branding in a way few CEOs have or perhaps, ever will.
Each product launch ostensibly gives Sorkin and Boyle the opportunity to dig deep into Jobs’ psyche, the future-looking, genius-level visionary who helped transform the Computer Age into the Information Age . . .
But to sit through Steve Jobs, Aaron Sorkin (Moneyball, The Social Network, The West Wing) and Danny Boyle’s (Slumdog Millionaire, Sunshine, 28 Days Later, Shallow Grave), Jobs (Michael Fassbender) was (and is) defined by the poor parenting skills Sorkin and Boyle repeatedly highlight through Steve Jobs’ unconventional narrative structure: three acts, each one a mini-backstage drama, running up to a key product launch (the Macintosh computer in 1984, Jobs’ Next computer in 1988, and the iMac in 1998). Each product launch ostensibly gives Sorkin and Boyle the opportunity to dig deep into Jobs’ psyche, the future-looking, genius-level visionary who helped transform the Computer Age into the Information Age, all while displaying the narcissism, egotism, and megalomania often associated with economic and political leaders.
He’s also a no-good, bad, basically awful dad, viciously rejecting the daughter, Lisa (played by three different actresses across Steve Jobs’ 14-year time frame), he fathered with his college girlfriend, Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston). Chrisann drags Lisa to the first and second product launches, needling Jobs for his refusal to pay child support (factually true) or spend time with Lisa (also true). Jobs only connects with Lisa when he spots her playing with the about-to-launch Macintosh computer, signposting the rather obvious, unsubtle idea that Jobs can’t connect with Lisa 1-on-1 as an ordinary father would, but only through technology (she paints a crude drawing on MacPaint). Subsequent encounters at the second and third product launches reveal Jobs hasn’t improved as a father at all, but instead grudgingly follows the common sense parenting advice (common to mere mortals, but not to Steve) of his right-hand woman/work-wife, Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet, in an on-again, off-again Eastern European accent).
Dramatically, it works, albeit on a heightened, non-realistic, overly neat level. Emotionally, it also works, but only on a superficial level . . .
Besides Lisa and Chrisann, other characters from Jobs’ past (shades of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol) show up at each product launch, including Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), Jobs’ one-time partner and friend, John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), the Apple CEO Jobs hired and who subsequently engineered Jobs’ removal from Apple, and Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg), a key member of the original Mac team. Like stubborn ghosts, Wozniak, Sculley, and Hertzfeld appear to make Jobs’ life difficult, forcing him to face one uncomfortable truth after another. For Wozniak, it’s Jobs’ abandonment of their friendship and professional collaboration along with Jobs’ refusal to publicly acknowledge the contributions of the Apple II team. For Sculley, it’s finding vindication in the truth behind Jobs’ ouster. For Hertzfeld, it’s about Jobs recognizing his flaws and faults, his humanity and everyone else’s. Dramatically, it works, albeit on a heightened, non-realistic, overly neat level. Emotionally, it also works, but only on a superficial level, especially the all-too-easy out Sorkin and Boyle give Jobs at the end of the film.
By then, however, it’s clear that Sorkin and Boyle aren’t particularly interested in demythologizing Jobs, but in re-humanizing him, depicting Jobs’ as a flawed genius (in his words, via Sorkin, he’s “badly made”) who, more than a decade before his untimely passing due to a recurrence of pancreatic cancer, broke through to a self-realization and the self-actualization necessary to become a good dad, the dad his daughter both wanted and needed. Of course, practically everything in Steve Jobs didn’t happen, at least not when, where, or how we see and hear in the film. Like Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network, Sorkin isn’t interested in historical accuracy or factual realism, but an impressionistic, subjective realism (Sorkin’s, not his subjects) as a means to illuminate society, culture, and how technology has irrevocably changed both. Ultimately, however, it feels dishonest, especially when there’s only a minimal attempt, if any, to depict his cinematic creations to resemble their real-world analogues. Even then, Sorkin’s reliance on the bad dad/good dad dichotomy as primary plot motivator doesn’t suggest provocative insight as much as a paucity of imagination.
Sorkin isn’t interested in historical accuracy or factual realism, but an impressionistic, subjective realism (Sorkin’s, not his subjects) as a means to illuminate society, culture, and how technology has irrevocably changed both. Ultimately, however, it feels dishonest, especially when there’s only a minimal attempt, if any, to depict his cinematic creations to resemble their real-world analogues.