This weekend, the movie Steve Jobs will be released in New York and Los Angeles before expanding nationwide on October 23. It’s the latest in a line of books and movies to try to tell the story of Steve Jobs. Three intrepid Inverse writers had the chance to see it. Here’s what we thought.
Sean Hutchinson: By my count there’ve been two written biographies, the previous Ashton Kutcher biopic, an Alex Gibney documentary, and now a new fictionalized movie about Steve Jobs directed by Danny Boyle and written by Aaron Sorkin. It seems to be the perfect time to make a statement about the tortured genius of the Apple mastermind. I don’t recall such cultural fervor about a figure so close to their death. Jobs died in 2011, and Walter Isaacson’s authorized biography followed first, and Boyle’s movie is officially based on Isaacson’s book.
I haven’t read the book, but I was definitely looking forward to Boyle’s movie, not because I’m particularly an Apple fanboy but because I was fascinated by Sorkin trying to contextualize another story of modern American ingenuity after The Social Network. In fact Steve Jobs was supposed to ostensibly be “The Social Network 2” before director David Fincher dropped out and Boyle signed up.
But no mistake, Steve Jobs is basically the Sorkin show with a little bit of Boyle’s hyper-stylish flourishes thrown in. From the get-go it’s a dialogue nor’easter that never lets up through its simple structure. What did you guys think?
Matthew Strauss: I was super surprised by the whole thing. The trailer makes it look like things actually happen in this movie, which isn’t quite the case.
It’s still an incredible movie, but as you say, Sean, the dialogue is endless. Ultimately, I don’t think this movie could have happened any other way. We don’t need to be didactically told Apple worked when many of us, myself included, had to check our iPhones a couple times throughout the film. Steve Jobs is not presented as the nicest dude in Steve Jobs, but the unspoken truth of the matter is people let him bully them because his ideas were obviously fucking brilliant. Winston watched Ashton Kutcher’s Jobs recently, so he’s definitely got the “what could have been” perspective. How’d the Sorkin-Boyle Jobs stand up for you, Winston?
Winston Cook-Wilson: I tried to sort of block out my memories of the Kutcher Jobs as much as possible when watching this, but it wasn’t too hard because there is basically no comparison. Sorkin made an extremely wise move and did not attempt a full overview of Jobs’ biography, though there is an incredible amount of information about Jobs’ history — and sufficient explanation for those not well-versed in his career — crammed skillfully into the dialogue. The film focuses on three scenes from different points in Jobs’ life, which take place (respectively) before launch events for the Macintosh, his failed “Black Cube” computer at NeXT (after his firing from Apple), and the iMac in the late ’90s.
In this sense, it is really very much like a three-act stage play. It reminds me of Anton Chekhov — plays like The Cherry Orchard where we glimpse single, real-time scenes in each act, which might be separated by a couple of decades. We infer what has changed between time periods from details in the dialogue. Sorkin is a master of showing and not telling in his dialogue, so that slowly the sense of what the hell is going on, and what the stakes of the scene are, sink in. No voiceovers are needed, and no awkward expositional monologues.
In addition to Sorkin and Boyle’s tight command of how to build real-time tension in each of these saturated, emotionally intense scenes, I love the commonality between the scenarios: Each of the three takes place backstage, just before one of Jobs’ infamous product presentations. These events, of course, are how the world primarily “knows” Steve Jobs. A big part of the tension of these scenes is in the fact that Jobs is trying to stay focused, put his game face on, and make sure everything goes off exactly as he wants it to with these events, which mean more to him than nearly anything. Meanwhile, though, parts of his life are falling apart around him; old friends (primarily Seth Rogen as co-Apple founder Steve Wozniak and Jeff Daniels as ex-Apple CEO John Sculley) and livid family members (primarily, the daughter he denied paternity to for years, and her mother) are telling him off: as Jobs puts it, “Why is it that five minutes before a launch people get drunk and tell me what they really think?” Everyone is chipping away at his self-mythology, just as he is prepping to present it, in flawless form, to the international public.
So the backstage area feels almost like a dream environment: a weird limbo between a public and private space. He’s on display even there. These intense, highly personal arguments are often happening as Apple employees and crew look on, people are constantly barging in and eavesdropping, and all the while the audience is waiting on the other side of the curtain. These are the perfect settings for this script, which is simultaneously purporting to be as factual as possible in its portrayal Jobs (and even psychoanalyze him), but also necessarily built from a weird pastiche of mythologies about him. Michael Fassbender’s Jobs is a mix of the public Jobs we “know” and the private one we fantasize about, and everything in the film seems to be speaking toward this contradiction. Sorkin’s hyper-realistic writing, as always, is ironically too verbose and perfectly crafted to feel actually real, though it’s emotionally potent and incredibly skilled; when combined with Boyle’s impressionistic filmic touches, the tone of the movie becomes even stranger.
I guess what I like is the constant conflict of contradictory elements in the movie. This tug-o-war feeling gave it life for me — made it engaging back-to-front, even aside from the strength of the acting.
Matthew: Since you’ve mentioned it, Winston, how about that strong acting? Kate Winslet does an amazing job as Joanna Hoffman, speaking with an oh-so-subtle Eastern European accent that becomes evident only after Jobs says something offhandedly anti-semitic to her. She is, as Sean said post-film-pre-bathroom, Jobs’ Jiminy Cricket.
My biggest question about the whole thing, though, is just how dedicated Rogen was to his role as Wozniak. There’s just one extended garage scene (i.e., the inventing of the original Apple personal computer) and both Jobs and Woz have grown-out ’70s hair. Fassbender looks great with a nice straight mane and some ginger scruff. Rogen’s got his own flowing Samson going on: a curly motherfucking jewfro mullet. Is that real??? I want to believe Rogen grew out his hair for one flashback. Relatedly, in the first presentation scene that Winston mentioned — the post-Super Bowl ad Macintosh launch — Jobs wears a ridiculous double-breasted blazer and a goofy bowtie. Is his goal to actually look as dumb as possible to sell himself as some kinda tech wiz? What do you think, Sean, about those looks, or, you know, the quality acting in general?
Sean: First to Winston’s point about Sorkin making everything so performative. Again, like The Social Network, he elevates what is ostensibly a bureaucratic story of contemporary capitalism into a grand Shakespearean mythology play. It’s willfully incomplete so Sorkin and Boyle can dig into the character at these specific moments instead of glossing over them. While the three-scene structure works for that, it does sometimes feel kind of ridiculous that every momentous change in this guy’s life happened while he was waiting in the wings to present a new product. Though, as Winston said, it’s a great contrast to the polished and rehearsed figure of the Jobs we know from his rockstar presentations.
That’s what I appreciated most about this approach. Sorkin knows it’s impossible to present a straightforward telling of a publicly mythologized character like Jobs. The best biopics are allegories that bake metaphor into the portrayal to arrive at larger themes. This is probably the biggest mistake that the Kutcher Jobs movie made, at least according to Winston. It was too straightforward of a biopic for its own good because it just outright said “This guy is a genius.” Steve Jobs does a great job of complicating that.
Still, Sorkin’s script idealizes Jobs, equating him with famous artistic geniuses: Picasso, da Vinci, Igor Stravinsky, Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Alan Turing, and so on. You could also say he’s eventually presented here as a god, making Steve Jobs an unconventional creation myth.
As for the actors, Fassbender is incredible. I was first irked by how much unlike the real-life Jobs he looks, but what comes across in Fassbender’s performance isn’t merely superficial. You get the force of nature that many say Jobs could be — the man full of contradictions who could be the benevolent tech guru or the relentless asshole at any moment. Give Fassbender the Best Actor Oscar right now.
Winslet is phenomenal too, playing Jobs’ conscience, facilitator, unromantic love interest, and tragic companion. Rogen does his best to keep up, and it works for the clingy, pseudo-pitiful persona he’s playing in Wozniak. I’m perfectly fine with the hair and/or wigs too.
Winston: Yeah, I feel like it tried to be as ambivalent as it could when coming to making Jobs an ultra-genius in that super pat, biopic-y way. Meaning, usually when he was likened to a genius in the movie, it was an outgrowth from discussing his own ad campaigns (the whole “Think Different” ad regimen was about geniuses, and how personal computing could make anything possible).
But it’s almost impossible to not genius someone out when doing a biopic about them, it seems: You have to create the highest stakes possible for the story (why do we care so much about this dead white guy?) and often people take that to ludicrous places (check out The Doors). But the combination between Sorkin and Boyle’s choice to avoid overviews, and Fassbender’s stunning ability to create a varied and dynamic performance from this very guarded, flatly mannered character, made this movie more psychologically subtle and engaging than the vast majority of Hollywood biopics. There’s a bit of idol worship in the melodramatic final sequence, to be sure, but that was such a crazy and what-the-fuck tonal shift (with the strobing light and blaring music) that it didn’t really bother me. What a hilarious grand finale.
I will say that while Rogen gets closer to actually acting instead of doing a recycled shtick in every semi-serious role he attempts, he is not all the way there for me in this movie. He goes through such a battery of emotions in his final scene with Jobs, but basically sticks to the same tone of voice, gestures, and volume level, and not in a way that sells his conflicted, love/hate relationship with Jobs (one of the most complicated in the film).
Matthew: Yeah, Jobs literally calls Woz “Rain Man,” albeit lovingly, and Woz’s only response is, like, “How about that Apple II team, am I right? Notice me!” That inability to adjust, though, definitely says as much about Jobs as it does about Woz. Jobs couldn’t see the emotional logic of Woz’s argument, so Woz just kept trying to get him to explain.
Nobody is perfect, like you’ve both said. They’re just presented as perfect and we’re left to see that it’s just not the case. For all the talking, the subtext is just as riveting (read: fire).
Sean: If there is any sort of anchor to the movie, it’s the dynamic between Jobs and his daughter, which weaves throughout all three acts and does come to a bizarrely disjointed climax with what I assumed to be a Coldplay song blaring over the soundtrack. There’s also a semi-cheesy moment where Jobs spontaneously invents the idea for the iPod as a way to connect with her, an artistic choice here that falls flat even if that happened in real life. The ending is the one time Boyle’s style overwhelms the movie to a negative degree, but it still makes the subject matter ecstatic in a way that leaves you buzzing.
I think Steve Jobs ultimately won’t come down as a big statement about technology, but about the way talent belies the technology that we worship. Steve Jobs the man is as enigmatic as ever in the movie named after him.