If you want to learn about the recently deceased Apple CEO/visionary Steve Jobs, there’s a new documentary called Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine by Alex Gibney that should be of use to you. If you want to watch a well-written, well-acted movie about a mythological Steve Jobs who most likely never existed, the Danny Boyle film named after him is probably more your speed. As with most scripts by Aaron Sorkin, Steve Jobs is not really about Steve Jobs at all. Just like with his work on the David Fincher Facebook movie The Social Network, Sorkin is much more concerned with myth than he is with truth, often using the likeness of real life people as a mirror through which he reflects on his own personal shortcomings. The basic Sorkin archetype is an emotionally combatant man baby who would much rather be judged by the merits of his work than the way he interacts with the outside world. Sorkin’s subjects are often twisted to fit this mold instead of the other way around & your enjoyment of Steve Jobs may be hinged on how much you’re willing to give in to that conceit.
Basically, what I’m saying is don’t expect a straightforward biopic from this film. It has a strange, fractured structure to it, setting its three vignettes in the minutes before the 1984 product launch of the Macintosh home computer, the 1988 launch of the NEXT (“the single biggest failure in the history of personal computers”), and the 1998 launch of the iMac, posed here as Jobs’ first true taste of success after years of struggle. Just before he takes the stage to shill his wares in each instance, Jobs is interrogated by the same six people in his life. his personal & professional shortcomings put him on an Ebenezer Scrooge type of existential trial. Everyone’s a combatant in Jobs’ vicious, stubborn, megalomaniac eyes, as be believes that, “The very nature of people is something to overcome.” This dialogue-heavy three act structure allows for a darkly humorous actors’ showcase & Michael Fassbender is a force to be reckoned with in the titular role. His position as the head figure in The Steve Jobs Revenge Machine (there’s a band name for you) might just go down as one of the actor’s finest performances, even though he doesn’t at all resemble the famous public figure until the black turtle neck & jeans costume and TED Talk format of the third act.
What doesn’t work so well is when the film isn’t fully committed to the gimmick. It’s so nice to have a picture like this allow the dialogue to breathe in luxuriously long stretches, building a delicate sort of verbal venom that can’t be established in short, one-off scenes. It’s a shame, then, that Steve Jobs breaks up its vignettes with flashbacks to brief scenes of forced past drama. I found the film’s flashbacks awkward & rushed, which is a damn shame because the rest of the film is paced so nicely. That doesn’t mean these brief tangents are entirely wastes of time. Some of the film’s best one-liners come from a past argument between Jobs & seminal programmer Chris Wozniak (portrayed here by Seth Rogen), like when Wozniak asserts, “Computers aren’t supposed to have human flaws. I’m not going to build this one with yours,” or in the exchange, “Computers aren’t paintings,” “Fuck you, yes they are,” (after Jobs’ compares his own work with that of a fine artist). I don’t think the movie would’ve been improved with these exchanges left out completely; I just wished they could’ve been worked into the script without disrupting the tension of the three pre-launch timelines.
To an outsider such as myself, Apple looks & feels like a cult that I just never bought into. Boyle & Sorkin seem to have caught the same vibes, posing Steve Jobs as The Man Behind the Curtain, functioning here like Phillip Seymore Hoffman’s L Ron Hubbard stand-in in The Master. Even the infamous 1984 Macintosh Superbowl commercial that the film heavily references has the sinisterly religious feel of a Dianetics DVD. As portrayed in the film, Jobs is fully aware of this effect his products & his personality have on consumers. He strives for “end to end” control on both his computers’ “locked doors” hardware & on the way they’re presented to the public, treating his supporting players like instruments in his tool kit instead of respect-worthy collaborators. I’m not sure that the Steve Jobs presented in Steve Jobs ever actually existed, but it’s fascinating to watch him balance his cruelty for those closest to him with his love for the public as an abstract concept. Sorkin’s version of Jobs will be downright vicious to an innocent little girl in one breath, but then yearn to make computers “warm” & friendly again (after cold Hollywood villains like HAL 9000) by getting them to say “Hello” in the next. Between Sorkin & Fassbender’s work here, the myth of Steve Jobs is most certainly an arresting contrast between genius & emotional sadism. He’s a true to form Sorkin protagonist who’s better judged by his work than his persona. I’m not sure I left the film knowing any more about the real Steve Jobs than I did going in, but I’m also not sure that matters in terms of the film’s failure or success.