Steve Jobs: Genius. Visionary. Asshole. Steve Jobs is not a traditional biography of the Apple founder and, after it went off the rails in the late 1980s and early 90s, its returning hero and savior. We don’t peek in on his childhood, or on the battle with pancreatic cancer that he eventually lost. This is much narrower, the tale of how one man revolutionized the computer industry and as a result, you know, changed the world. Jobs wasn’t an engineer or a programmer; Jobs did what he did, to borrow one of the film’s favorite metaphors, by being the conductor of an orchestra of engineers and programmers. Through sheer force of personality. And as depicted here, that personality was mainly Breathtakingly Narcissistic Jerk, all raging arrogance massively overcompensating for past rejection. But also a personality of dazzling brilliance and foresight and imagination.
You’ve never seen such a compelling and entertaining and insightful movie about a genius jerk. Ever. Steve Jobs is as smart and as sleek and as essential as… well, as the unibody aluminum Macbook Pro I composed this review on. And it’s funny in that snarky, let’s-change-the-world-while-we-walk-and-talk Aaron Sorkin way. (If you are not a fan of Sorkin, Steve Jobs may not be your cup of tea. Though I honestly don’t understand anyone who isn’t a Sorkin fan; who else writes screwball dramedies about politics or technology or journalism anymore? Who ever did?) Sorkin (Moneyball, The Social Network) has adapted Walter Isaacson’s biography of Jobs in a way that only Sorkin would: by showing us an insider’s perspective on a very public endeavor, in this case, that of Apple during its most tumultuous period, between 1984 and 1998.
We meet Jobs (beautifully embodied by Michael Fassbender [Slow West, X-Men: Days of Future Past], who doesn’t much look like Jobs yet manages to be eerie in the impersonation anyway) and become immersed in his unique view on the world during the last-minute, behind-the-scenes preparations at three essential Jobs-Apple moments: the 1984 launch of the Macintosh, the 1988 launch of Next computer (which he founded after he was booted from Apple yet which became part of his long-game Macintosh plan), and the 1998 launch of the iMac. Here are the moments before the moments many of us are familiar with (probably most especially the 1998 one, by when Jobs had morphed into the now-iconically black-turtlenecked figure introducing to us the latest techno-doodad we’d soon discover we couldn’t live without). These moments aren’t true in the factual sense — there cannot have been this much interpersonal drama backstage — but they are true in the larger sense of how they craft an intimate study of what drove the man, and how that manifested itself in ways that have changed how we live today. (It’s stunning to realize that even the most recent segment in the film is set almost 20 years ago, and how much has changed since then, how the Internet and constant connectivity have radically altered our culture.)
Steve Jobs is almost a stage play, except that virtuoso director Danny Boyle (Trance, Slumdog Millionaire) renders it all so cinematically that it could never be mistaken for one; Boyle uses, for instance, his return to real Jobs locations, such as the San Francisco opera house for the Next launch, to glorious effect, letting them make marvelous statements on the outsizedness of Jobs and the mad beauty of Jobs’s vision. But there’s a stage-intimacy to how we eavesdrop on the interactions between Jobs and a small handful of people before each event: his head of marketing and best platonic friend Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet: A Little Chaos, Insurgent), who moves with him from Apple to Next and back to Apple again; John Scully (Jeff Daniels: The Martian, Howl), the CEO of Apple who forced Jobs out before he was himself forced out; founding Apple engineer Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen: 22 Jump Street, Neighbors); Apple engineer Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg: Seven Psychopaths, Men in Black III); and Jobs’s daughter, Lisa (played, respectively, at ages 5, 9, and 19 by Makenzie Moss, Ripley Sobo [Ricki and the Flash, Winter’s Tale], and Perla Haney-Jardine [Spider-Man 3, Dark Water]) and her mother, Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston: Night Moves, Taking Woodstock), with whom Jobs had a contentious coparental relationship (they were no longer romantic partners by the time Lisa was born).
Much of what we overhear relates to engineering and marketing and corporate governance, and Sorkin and Boyle do not hold our hands through it. We get it anyway — we get how Jobs is constantly forcing his own unique path through the conventional ways of doing things, how Jobs’s idea of what computers should be offering the masses of ordinary people (as opposed to the tiny minority of hobbyists) does not mesh with the profit motive (although it might have if anyone could have seen beyond the next quarter). Much of the rest of it relates to what a horrible shit he was to his daughter and her mother, yet this aspect never descends into a cheap narrative ploy meant to merely underscore that even smart people who changed the world for the better can sometimes be very stupid and cruel (though of course it does do that, too). Instead, it wraps the family side of Jobs’s life up with the work side, shows us how they complement and feed off each other, for better and for worse: it’s the same impulses driving everything he does. Which is perfectly understandable. Yet I can’t recall a film that so beautifully gets right the complicated yet still creative mess that one person’s life can be. Or that manages it in such a deeply satisfying way.
And then there’s this: all of what we witness has a certain impact only via what we bring with us into the movie. Steve Jobs assumes that we understand how important Jobs was to how we live today. It assumes that we have a long and intimate relationship with the Mac and with Apple products such as the iPod and the iPhone, or with the various non-Apple products that have raced to catch up with their innovations. (I certainly have a such a relationship. The Mac has accompanied me through my entire adult life, almost my entire creative life, from the first time I used a Mac Classic at the New York University library to produce a fanzine to the Macbook Pro I write on and produce a web site on today. The computer that is, without exaggeration, an extension of my brain and without which I would feel lost.) It is impossible to overstate the impact of the 1984 Orwell-themed TV ad that hinted at the introduction of the very first Mac in 1984, which ran only once, during the Super Bowl that year, but which has lived on as a piece of computing and advertising history; and though the film shows us that ad during the course of the rehearsal for the 1984 launch event, Steve Jobs makes no attempt to explain that impact beyond the splash it made as a piece of clever filmmaking (it was directed by Ridley Scott, and it shows). Likewise, during the rehearsal for the 1998 iMac launch, there’s no meta hint of what is to come via this machine… yet when Jobs here practice-pulls the black cloth off the thing and reveals that playfully colorful and friendly computer, no one who has had a relationship with the Mac, or who can recall what life was like before cheap, intuitive home computers and fast, always-on Internet access, can fail to get a visceral thrill from a sudden realization of the speed with which we are living through history.
None of that is in the film, and yet it is there all the same. There is nothing in Steve Jobs that is mythologizing of the man, and nothing in the film that is about the cult of the Mac. And yet it is all about how that happened anyway. If history is all about finding the roots of the present in the past, then this is one of the more compulsory bits of modern history I’ve ever seen.
viewed during the 59th BFI London Film Festival