Steve Jobs Peeled Down to His Core (Movie Review)
Irrefutable genius. Jerk. Innovator. Opportunist. Delinquent dad. Visionary. Narcissist. Man-child. Entrepreneur. Asshole.
All those descriptions (and then some) fit Steve Jobs. In spite of, and to some degree due to his premature death in 2011, he endures as both a metamorphic icon and a cultural myth. Jobs’ unbridled energy combined with his uncompromising ingenuity led to a transformation in how the world works and plays — be it on iMacs or iPods, iPhones or iPods, or Macintosh desktops and laptops. But for all his cutting-edge high-tech marvels and toys, which included a number of failures along the way, it was Jobs’ grandiose, almost naive idealistic vision of our world — that technology should serve humanity rather than the other way around — which has become his everlasting legacy. Arguably, Jobs transformed the daily lives of more people, in more ways, than anyone who’s lived since Thomas Edison.
Capturing the essence of the co-founder and sometime head of Apple within the limited confines of a two-hour film would seem insurmountable. Various periods of Jobs’ already widely-known personal and professional life and very public struggles, compelling chapters if told independently, would make for a fascinating character-driven drama, from his earliest days working inside his suburban Los Altos bedroom (and later garage) alongside yang to yin accomplice Steve Wozniak, to the final months of his 56th year when he was finally forced to come to terms with his own physical limitations and pending mortality.
“Steve Jobs” the movie, mostly gets it right. although it admittedly omits a lot. The film directed by Danny Boyle (“Slumdog Millionaire”) serves up a slice of the larger Jobs’ life pie in the middle years between 1986 and 1998, when he spun his web and weaved his way through a revolving door as the head of Apple while temporarily an outcast, insufferably abusing but also driving his very closest associates and confidants to the very edge, sometimes entirely off the emotional deep end.
As portrayed, Jobs is not a nice guy in this movie, which makes him all the more real to the audience. This isn’t the cocksure Jobs the world was used to seeing publicly strutting around onstage like a circus ringmaster dazzling us with the latest wizardry from the Macintosh brain trust. Instead, this is just a portion of Jobs career unmasked behind the curtains, waiting off in the green room, his head sometimes buried in his hands, bombarded with seemingly insurmountable problems and pressures over which he has no control.
Michael Fassbender plays the demanding title role, effectively capturing Jobs’ deeply hidden almost adolescent vulnerabilities which were rooted in his early life as an adopted, and at least for a time, an unwanted child. Despite his frequent outbursts and seemingly callous disregard of those who were closest to him — most of all the daughter he spent years denying was his own — nevertheless, Jobs manages to score our sympathy. That’s no small task for the true-to-life Jobs who in the mid-1980’s was reportedly worth $400 million at the time, but still nearly allowed his estranged former girlfriend and their daughter Lisa to go on welfare, not to mention his reluctance to pay for her college tuition a decade later. Some time after his death, we found out what a gold digger his ex was, at one point demanding a $25 million extortion in order to remain silent (plus another $5 million for Lisa). The movie doesn’t harp on this ugliness any more than it needs to, yet it brings in just enough additional details of Jobs’ jumbled life to explain this seemingly bizarre and self-defeating behavior. Somehow, it even manages to rationalize Jobs’ megalomania.
Credit the screenwriter, the brilliant Aaron Sorkin (“The Newsroom,” “Moneyball,” “The Social Network,” “Charlie Wilson’s War,” “The West Wing”) for this empathetic and entertaining portrait. Sorkin’s snappy dialogue, and ricochet of plot twists take place in the crossfire of one scattershot conversation after another, where great minds go to battle and words are the weapons of the trade.
The entirety of the film takes place in an undisclosed array of sanitized grey hallways, all looking the same, punctuated with frequent confrontations in back offices with boxes scattered everywhere that looks like the staff is still moving in. Glass, steel, and plastic become the extras, perhaps even the central character, within this desensitized subculture where disfigured human relationships, masquerades of friendship, and spurious romance remains perpetually unplugged and therefore disengaged because such devices are not schemed into the computer circuit board. Indeed, there are no picturesque wide-lens helicopter shots of Silicon Valley in all its glory. No fancy yachts. No martinis. We don’t even see that cars they drive. We aren’t permitted to see the much bigger picture outside these confining walls of time and space, because the impersonal bland office where we’re sitting and the problem before us is so utterly stifling, and at the same time so pressing that we’re absorbed within the maze of twisted priorities. Despite having achieved unfathomable levels of personal wealth, no one within the Jobs’ circle seems to enjoy the fruits of all that genius and labor. Perhaps that’s because none of this was ever about the money. Even Jobs’, if and when he ever went home at night, opened up the front door to am empty living room without a sofa (at least up until when he married in 1991, which isn’t covered in the film).
Each of the supporting character roles are absolutely terrific. Kate Winslet is almost unrecognizable in the demanding role of Joanna Hoffman, Jobs’ longstanding and indefatigable marketing executive and PR spokesperson. She’s marvelous. Jeff Daniels, undoubtedly plucked by writer Sorkin from his three-year stint as anchorman in HBO’s critically-acclaimed “The Newsroom,” plays corporate executive John Sculley, giving the ex-Pepsi-Cola-turned-Apple CEO (who in reality blundered his way through the high-tech sector) far more grit and intelligence than he probably deserves. But the real standout is Seth Rogen, in the role of burly Steve Wozniak. Rogen is perfectly cast and goes to war with Jobs every step of the way, fighting the good fight on behalf of his high-tech team while trying to stay very human in a world largely devoid of any genuine humanity. Come Oscar nomination time early in 2016, look for Fassbender to be the odds on favorite for Best Actor, along with Supporting Actor nominations for Winslet and Rogen.
As with any thoughtful film, Audiences are left to ponder much larger issues and questions which extend way beyond Jobs’ personal biography. This is a movie about a universally life-changing, pervasive, and might even say perverted technological mass movement which takes no prisoners, and where success isn’t measured year-to-year as much as month-to-month and week-to-week. To a wall of blank stares, Jobs would have been the first to ask his subordinates, “what have you done for me lately?” Although the movie ends with more questions than answers, taken as a whole, the entire portrait is riveting.
That said, one must wonder why anyone would willingly stay and subject themselves to such ceaseless abuse, aside from the prospect of achieving vast personal wealth, if such ambition can possibly be dismissed. Perhaps it can’t. Like those who become absorbed in this movie, the devoted who remained in awe of Jobs proven by willing to sacrifice their own lives by working 80-hour weeks knew they were in the midst of something much grander and greater than anything on the outside that privileged inner circle. They knew they were part of a movement that was changing the world, and Jobs was the revolutionary leading the symphony of innovation.
For this reason too, like those who were part of the Jobs empire at Apple, we can’t take our eyes off the screen, even though what we see isn’t always a flattering portrait.