Review: Steve Jobs

Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin has found his latest cinematic surrogate in the visionary Apple founder.

It’s not too big a stretch to suggest that Aaron Sorkin likes to make movies about misunderstood geniuses because he sees himself as one.

Sohe wrote one film about the prickly and brilliant Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and another one about the outside-the-box-thinking “sabermetrics” guy Billy Bean and his TV shows often feature fearless men who have to stand alone against mediocrity and corruption.

His latest cinematic surrogate is Steve Jobs, the Apple founder who was fired by his own company, only to be brought back for a triumphant comeback years later, a storyline that is essentially catnip to Sorkin. And as played by Michael Fassbender, Jobs is very much a Sorkinian creation—a hyper-articulate visionary and perfectionist with a God complex who is also a bit of a dick.

The film is staged as a three-act backstage drama—chronicling the three biggest product launches of Jobs’ life. In Act One, Jobs is launching the Macintosh. This was 1984, right after Apple’s famous Super Bowl commercial that is still considered the greatest of all time (and that, according to the film, at least, Jobs was extremely hands-on in creating). Anticipation for the Macintosh is off-the-charts and Jobs is freaking out because his computer doesn’t say, “Hello.” A computer that greets you with a friendly “hello” is integral to Jobs’ philosophy that personal computers be an indispensable part of everyday life. Macintosh’s head engineer Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg) claims the demo can’t be fixed in time for the launch. True to form, Jobs won’t take no for an answer, berating and mocking Hertzfeld and basically threatening to humiliate him on stage unless he fixes it.

The Second Act is the launch of the NeXT Cube, which I confess I’d never heard of. NeXT was the company Jobs briefly fronted between Apple gigs and the Cube was wildly overpriced but cool to look at and perhaps an auger of Jobs’ obsession with the beautiful “objectness” of his devices. According to the film’s mythology, Jobs expected the Cube to fail, but he patented an Operating System he knew that Apple would need, thus paving the way for his comeback. (Sorkin’s version of events has been disputed, but again, it’s just so Sorkin: Even when Jobs failed he failed on purpose.)

By Act Three, Jobs is triumphant. The first iMac is about to launch—it’s that bubbly, translucent blue, mushroom-like pod that was everyone’s first personal computer—and Jobs already knows it’s going to be an enormous success. The true cult of Steve Jobs and Apple had begun.

It’s in the first act that we meet all the key players in the film, who will visit Jobs—A Christmas Carol-style—backstage at each of the launches. Besides Hertzfeld, there’s Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), Jobs’ right-hand woman, consigliere, and best (and only?) friend. As played brilliantly by Winslet, she’s a tough and eminently practical woman, of Polish descent, who adores Jobs, warts and all, and is one of the few people in his life who can really get through to him. There’s also Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), or simply “Woz,” who’s not quite the featured player here you might expect. (That’s partly because Hertzfeld takes up some of his under-appreciated tech genius role.) It’s Wozniak who wants Jobs to acknowledge the team behind the Apple II—that is, the computer that kept Apple in the black for years and allowed both the flashy Super Bowl ad and the MacIntosh to exist. But Jobs refuses to acknowledge anyone other than himself. Why mention yesterday’s computer, he argues, when we’re launching the computer of tomorrow?

Next is John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), the former Pepsi CEO handpicked by Jobs to run Apple, who is also a sort of self-styled father-figure to him. (As an infant, Jobs was given up for adoption and the film’s position, often articulated by Sculley, is that he spent the rest of his life looking to prove his birth parents wrong). Finally, there’s Jobs’ ex girlfriend Chrisann (Katherine Waterson) and her daughter Lisa (played by three different girls, including Perla Haney-Jardine as a 19-year-old) who is almost definitely Jobs’ child but whom Jobs refuses to take responsibility for—at least at first.

Lisa is where the “heart” of the film lies. It’s hard to say exactly why Jobs refuses to acknowledge her, but it seems partly because he feels he has better and bigger things to do. (Remember: dick.) But Lisa wins him over by being smart and inquisitive and curious—basically reminding him of him. By the film’s third act, Lisa and Jobs have something resembling a touching father-daughter moment—and we see Jobs’ emotional growth. It all feels a bit facile, but then again, the whole film does. The “backstage” format of Steve Jobs is elegant, at best, and overly schematic at worst, but it does dazzle us with its cleverness, tight construction, and wit, as so many of Sorkin’s screenplays do.

You’ll notice that I haven’t mentioned the film’s director once. You sense that Danny Boyle, an Oscar-winner for Slumdog Millionaire, is trying to insert his own voice here—he gives us swooping aerial shots and unexpected perspectives, as if to say “Hellllooo! I’m here!”—but, for better or worse, Sorkin films are Sorkin films. (The obvious exception is The Social Network, where, in David Fincher—who at one point was attached to this film, too—Sorkin encountered a director as obsessive and exacting as he is.)

Likewise, the Jobs here will always be “Aaron Sorkin’s Jobs,” not to be confused with the man himself, who people say was nerdier and more youthfully exuberant than the fully in-control maestro depicted in the film. But Fassbender does a great job with what he’s given. Of course, he had to memorize a truly staggering amount of dialogue—this might actually be Sorkin’s talkiest film, and that’s saying a lot. And he had to make us like Jobs, or at least root for him, despite his selfishness and God complex. What Fassbender does—other than being a lot more handsome than Jobs, who was boyishly cute, at best—is make Jobs’ self-regard infectious. You can see where people want to earn his approbation—who wouldn’t want to be part of Jobs’ thrilling and confident vision of the future and his own role in it? As for the question that is often asked about Jobs—what did he really do?—Sorkin is fully on the side of, “He made Apple great,” although he at least allows Woz to complain that Jobs was not a computer engineer and never actually made anything.

“Musicians play their instruments,” Jobs replies. “I play the orchestra.”

Great line, Aaron. I mean, um, Steve.