Near the end of Steve Jobs, the title character makes a confession. He doesn’t sit inside a cramped wooden booth opposite a priest, but his admission is nevertheless deeply spiritual.
“I’m poorly made.”
It’s tempting to define an iPhone by its glossy promotional advertisements, but it’s the machine we hold in our hand every day, the one losing charge and memory, that offers a clearer window into the device’s inner apparatus. This is how Steve Jobs is presented in Danny Boyle’s new film. Of all the elements that converge to make this project a disheveled accomplishment — Boyle’s energetic direction, Aaron Sorkin’s snappy script, the cast’s career-peaking performances — it’s the story’s willingness to sketch Jobs as a broken man that makes the film both haunting and impressive. He’s brilliant, enigmatic, and, not surprisingly, keeps dropping calls.
It’s curious then to note that, for a movie desiring honest, introspective reflection, Steve Jobs often exudes fantasy. Forgoing a more traditional story structure, Boyle and Sorkin (The West Wing, The Newsroom) choose to focus instead on the backstage activity preceding three of Jobs’ most iconic product launches: the Apple Macintosh (1984), the NeXT Computer (1988), and the iMac (1998). As Jobs (Michael Fassbender) prepares for each of these presentations, the state of his public and private lives is relayed through an endless stream of conversational (often passionate) dialogue.Jobs’ incessant pursuit of technological perfection presents a picture of how expertise, craftsmanship, and passion can often serve as masks for deep insecurities.
These crisscrossing exchanges happen on screen, but it’s safe (even responsible) to say they didn’t actually happen in real life — at least not in the way the movie portrays them. Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, who served as a consultant on the project, freely admitted that most of the film’s scenes were made up (including his character’s climactic showdown with Jobs): “The movie is not about reality. It’s about personalities.”
Skewed shots combined with magical splashes of dialogue illuminating walls and backdrops communicate artistic interpretation over historical experience. The soundtrack integrates blasts of operatic musical notes and whimsical sympathy melodies, exuding imagination and hyperbole. Steve Jobs is a ballet, an opera of a movie, with Boyle carving an impressionistic “painting instead of a photograph.”
Steve Jobs actually has more in common with Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol than a strict biopic. Like Scrooge, Jobs visits numerous individuals from the past and present on the eve of his personal “holidays.” These include Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), Jobs’ estranged daughter Lisa, Apple CEO John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), and programmer Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg) — all of whom give considerable performances. Jobs’ visits aren’t mystical in a literal sense, but their composition, like in Dickens’ Carol, induce Jobs into a lather of soul-searching. The conversations are eccentric and punchy (a Sorkin trademark), reflecting the inner dialogue of a man arguing with a made-up caricature in his mind.
From his strained relationship with Lisa and her mother to his uneasy friendship with Wozniak, Jobs governs each of his associations as a deity, reciting his own words as if they were scripture.
When told that people will cease to revere him if he fails, Jobs says, “God sent his son on a suicide mission and they still love him.” He’s Julius Caesar and any opposition to his plans are labeled as betrayal. In one scene, Jobs berates Hertzfeld for not adequately preparing the Apple Macintosh. “You had three weeks,” Jobs scolds, “The universe was created in a third of that time.”
“One day, you’ll have to tell us how you did it,” Hertzfeld replies.
During each act, Boyle uses a recurring (though different) image of audiences standing, applauding, and raising their hands as they wait for their lord to appearing on stage — meshing together Jobs’ inner adoration and public hagiography. These pictures represent something of a charismatic revival service, with Jobs collecting offering in the form of product purchases. The camera is directly about the seats, peering down on the mass of ecstatic bodies from a godlike perspective. At times, the foundations literally tremble in anticipation of Jobs’ presence.
Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire, Trainspotting) manages the weight of these ideas with an eccentric-yet-even hand. The camera moves as quick as the edits, creating a tuned visual companion to Sorkin’s oral soundtrack. The story’s pace is breakneck, both from an optical and auditory perspective. Boyle even manages to capture the look and feel of each era, shooting in 16mm, 35mm, and digital respectively. As Jobs and his technology progresses, the movie’s form does too.
This steady hand makes up for the occasional hole in Sorkin’s script. I used the phrase “disheveled accomplishment” above because Steve Jobs never quite reaches masterpiece status. The relationships are cramped and simplistic in some scenes, and the film’s end feels more like an afterthought than a bow. Yet, despite its glitches, the screenplay still manages to embrace a link between both the universal and the intimate. Steve Jobs stands, above all, as a character study that also reaches into the heart of who we are as humans (much like Sorkin’s The Social Network).
With keen intensity and dark humor, Fassbender presents a man more complicated than his simple design and navigation would reveal. Fassbender’s sharp one-liners will breed most of the laughs, but it’s the moments of still reflection where the actor captures his prey. He may not look like Steve Jobs, but he feels like Steve Jobs.
Kate Winslet, who plays Jobs’ assistant (or “work wife” as she calls it), is just as, if not more, captivating. If Steve Jobs is a play on A Christmas Carol, Winslet’s Joanna Hoffman represents the spirits who guide Jobs along, helping him both navigate and understand his psychology. “What you make shouldn’t be the best part of you,” she declares to Jobs in one scene.
Jobs’ incessant pursuit of technological perfection presents a picture of how expertise, craftsmanship, and passion can often serve as masks for deep insecurities. In an archive clip at the beginning of the film, one programmer talks to a reporter about the extent to which computers will be able to assist humans in the future. The reporter stops him and asks, “What’s it like in social terms?”
Is it possible, like Jobs, for humanity to be tethered together technologically, yet still disconnected socially? Where then, do we find fulfillment? In our work? Our social media profiles? In some relationship where we play the part of God? These are not only pertinent questions today, but questions that lie at the heart of Sorkin’s Jobs. From his relationships with Lisa, Sculley, the general public, etc., Jobs often retreats back to his fortress of technology and work in order to find stability.
In a poignant scene during the third act, Jobs is told he isn’t liked. As he’s left alone, Jobs turns to hunch over an iMac. His voice grows quiet as he silently begins reciting the computer’s technical specifications. Lying at the altar of his own invention, Jobs offers the prayers of his personal accomplishments. It’s here that the film’s experimental structure reveals its embedded analogy: Jobs’ would-be greatest moments (the Macintosh, NeXT, and iMac launches) are clouded by the appendices of his greatest insecurities.
The one big question mark that remains at the end of the film is that of change or — to rely on an oft-used word — redemption. Does Sorkin’s Jobs, in the fashion of Scrooge, find some form of conversion? Does he continue to see himself as a god, using others in order to achieve some form of purpose, or does he realize the meaninglessness associated with his deification? It’s hard to say.
While Boyle and Sorkin ultimately leave this question up to the audience, one glaring confession just might hold the key to whether Jobs understands his personal depravity or sees himself as a god, believing the same lie that led humanity to take a bite out of the forbidden fruit (or in this case, apple): “I’m poorly made.”