Hard to Be a God: ‘Steve Jobs’ Thinks Different About Steve JobsUniversal Pictures
Steve Jobs is dead, to begin with — there is no doubt whatsoever about that. Maybe this was what emboldened screenwriter Aaron Sorkin and director Danny Boyle to take the liberties they do in Steve Jobs, and maybe it wasn’t. It did mean that Sorkin got access to Lisa Brennan-Jobs — the daughter whom Jobs initially refused to acknowledge was his, and one of the few key figures who declined to be interviewed for the thick-as-a-brick Walter Isaacson biography that Sorkin’s script burns for fuel. Brennan-Jobs was reluctant to talk to Isaacson when her father was still alive, but she talked to Sorkin extensively.1 We can’t really know exactly how her perspective shaped the movie. But Sorkin — also the father of a daughter, for what it’s worth — was either taken enough with her story or grateful enough for her input that he’s conceived Steve Jobs as a film about a smart little girl and the big mean blustery mess of a father who finally opens his arms to her, in his way, and in spite of himself. It’s not the only relationship the film explores, but it’s the hook on which everything else hangs, including the somewhat hollow third-act redemption it contrives for its subject, who dreamed that a computer could be a thing of beauty and was willing to just about decapitate anyone who disagreed. At one point in the film, Jobs reminds another character that he believes in giving consumers two options — buy it or don’t. The movie takes its cues from him.
In Steve Jobs, Sorkin takes interactions and confrontations that occurred at different points in Jobs’s life, or not at all, and reimagines them as having taken place backstage in the minutes immediately before Jobs unveiled one of three new products — Apple’s Macintosh in 1984, the NeXT Computer in 1988, and the original Bondi blue iMac G3 in 1998. (Each sequence gets its own distinct look: grainy/nostalgic 16-millimeter for the Mac, sumptuous 35 for the NeXT, warts-and-all digital for the iMac.) The film’s more-than-a-little-bit cockamamy sub-premise is that on each of these crucially important days, Jobs also found himself scheduled for back-to-back come-to-Jesus meetings with people he’d wronged on his way to the top, including Lisa and her mother, Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston); Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen, putting deepening wrinkles of hurt in his Fozzie Bear rumble); and the company’s third CEO, John Sculley (Jeff Daniels, perfectly wry and wounded).
Sculley shows up as a slayable father figure/level boss in all three chapters, even though in real life he and Jobs rarely spoke after spring 1985, when Jobs fought Sculley for control of Apple’s board and lost. And while Mac marketing guru Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet) did follow Jobs from Apple to NeXT and was famously one of the few people who could stand up to him and live to tell the tale, she’d moved on to a position at General Magic and then to retirement by the time the iMac hit. I’m also going to assume Hoffman was more than the sassy-but-supportive Sorkin work-wife figure this movie makes her out to be. Of course, Sorkin has freely admitted that if any of these scenes actually happened the way he’s written them, it’d be news to him — but when you see the movie, chances are you’ll understand exactly why he played so fast and loose with history. By tossing out the biopic beat sheet and zeroing in on the parts of Jobs’s business that most resembled show business, Sorkin has moved Jobs’s story into his own comfort zone. It’s now a three-act backstage-panic comedy/melodrama about a brilliant, work-fixated white guy whose genius far exceeds his emotional intelligence and the people who can’t help but love him anyway.
Occasionally, flashbacks peek into other chapters — Jobs and Wozniak in the Los Altos garage, arguing over whether a computer should be like a painting, and the Cupertino boardroom showdown between Sculley and Jobs that preceded Jobs’s departure from the company in 1985. But huge pieces of Jobs’s life and career fall outside the frame: Windows, Laurene Powell, Buddhism, the iPhone, Feist, cancer, the Foxconn suicide nets, and the part of the Isaacson book where Mac software architect Andy Hertzfeld tries to cheer up the ousted Jobs by bringing him a copy of Bob Dylan’s Empire Burlesque and Jobs dismisses “When the Night Comes Falling From the Sky” as “too disco,” proving once and for all that whatever his other sins, Steve was also guilty of underrating Sly and Robbie. We don’t get a cinematic rendering of the telling black-comic moment in the Isaacson book when Jobs, fighting pneumonia in a liver-transplant ward in Memphis, Tennessee, stirs from the depths of sedation to rip an oxygen mask off his face and tell the pulmonologist he won’t wear it because it’s badly designed — a moment made for the parallel world where the Coen brothers got to this story first. Nor does Sorkin’s Jobs ever come near the self-awareness the actual Jobs displayed in admitting to Isaacson, toward the end of his life, that he never liked putting on/off switches on Apple products because he wants to believe our consciousness survives after we die.
Jobs’s fear that death might indeed be the end has given us a world of ever-present devices that are sometimes sleeping, but always on; in a sense it’s also given us a world where we, too, are sometimes sleeping but always on. It’s been suggested that by hooking us on closed-system technologies designed to steer us toward specifically and idiosyncratically Jobsian approaches to work and creation and human interaction, Jobs took his wound and inflicted it on all of us. This is the most provocative idea in Alex Gibney’s recent, damning documentary Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine, even if Gibney, bound by the constraints of nonfiction, can’t quite say it out loud. It also floats through the background of Sorkin’s screenplay, although technology itself is as tangential to this story as the fortunes of the mighty Bengals of Cincinnati were to the lives of the people on Sports Night. It’s pretty clear Sorkin views each of the products that Jobs unveils as a newer, neater bottle for the same old snake oil. The most symbolically significant computer in the film is the NeXT system from ’88, a beautifully designed black cube that doesn’t actually have an operating system yet, because Jobs is waiting to build one he can barter to Apple as a get-out-of-exile-free card.
So, someone asks, it’s just a black cube? “Yeah,” Jobs says. “But isn’t it the coolest black cube you’ve ever seen?” As in The Social Network, Sorkin’s disdain for the inherent arrogance of technological futurism as a character trait keeps him from thinking clearly or critically about the actual futures his characters think they’re inventing; that’s the bad news. The good news is that if you can ignore what it’s not doing, Steve Jobs creates a reality-distortion field as powerful and persuasive as the one its subject was famous for projecting. Sorkin’s dialogue is a helluva drug, and Boyle finds clever ways to bring life to an all-talk script without getting all Birdman about it. Whether you thought Jobs was the messiah of tech-gnosis or a sneering Bond villain in dad jeans, the movie’s carbonated crispness will still carry you out of the theater on an iCloud.
Thanks in part to the Sony hackers, we know that this movie and its cast took a while to come together. We know that it was almost a David Fincher film, with Christian Bale as Jobs, and that Leonardo DiCaprio and (fascinatingly) Tom Cruise were both considered for the lead after Bale dropped out, and that when Michael Fassbender was floated as an alternative, Sorkin responded with Jobsian tact by asking who the fuck this “Michael Fassbender” person was. All of this now seems like a long journey to a retrospectively obvious destination. Fassbender looks enough like Jobs that it’s not distracting, and he finds a voice for the character — thin, somewhat unpleasant, with a rueful hitch that’ll remind Sorkheads of Bradley Whitford’s Josh Lyman and a pipsqueak lilt that bugged me until I realized I was hearing Alex P. Keaton in it — that dissolves whatever issues of verisimilitude remain. His Jobs always sounds like he’s just finished a temper tantrum, except when he’s winding up to throw another one. Fassbender actually does less with his body than Ashton Kutcher did in Joshua Michael Stern’s studiously misbegotten Jobs, from 2013, but I’d trade all of Kutcher’s carefully observed gangling for the split-second moment here when Lisa throws her arms around Steve and whispers “I want to live with you” and Fassbender’s Jobs reacts as a traffic light might. And, I mean, of course the perfect actor for the Jobs part turned out to be the guy who plays Magneto — the haughtiest and most regally bored mutant in Marvel’s menagerie, a super-antihero whose key traits include childhood trauma, a homicidal impatience with humanity’s sluggish evolution, and a will that can literally bend steel.
He’s at his most obviously supervillainous in the first act, robotically responding “Apple donates millions of dollars’ worth of computers to underfunded schools” when Waterston pleads with him to pay her more than $385 a month in child support now that he’s worth $441 million — and insisting, in front of his daughter, that the name of Apple’s “LISA” computer was merely an acronym for “Local Integrated System Architecture.” Meanwhile, Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg, lovely and understated as the avatar of every other poor bastard charged with telling Jobs “no”) and his team (a group of perfectly cast alternate-timeline Morks) struggle to debug the Mac prototype’s text-to-speech software after Jobs admonishes them, “Fuck you — we need it to say Hello.” In real life, the computer didn’t just talk — it told jokes about IBM, then introduced Jobs as “a man who’s been like a father to me,” a moment Sorkin weirdly leaves out.
Jobs shrugs off worldly concerns with gnomic pronouncements like, “The very nature of people is something to be overcome,” and, “God sent his only son on a suicide mission, but we like him anyway, because he made trees.” Cut to a wave sweeping through the auditorium — the cult of Steve, already a fait accompli. Not for the last time, Boyle emphasizes the disconnect between the public and private Jobs by shooting Fassbender in a makeup mirror, framed so that his image seems to linger there for a split second after he’s gotten up and moved. By the time we get to 1988, the mirror-Jobs has taken over, booking Symphony Hall in San Francisco for an elegantly micromanaged luncheon in honor of a Trojan-horse computer that Sun Microsystems chief scientist Bill Joy would later call “the first yuppie workstation.” It’s the most classically cinematic part of the movie — in his ostentatiously post-nerdy power suit, Fassbender looks like Michael Corleone and acts like Fredo pretending to be Sonny, shooing away the daughter he still can’t bring himself to parent and then hypocritically bellowing, “That’s what men do!” at Sculley moments later. The scene cuts back and forth between their Symphony Hall standoff and the meeting that led to Jobs quitting Apple in 1985; it’s Sorkin cross-fading two streams of Sorkin-talk, as in the dueling-depositions sequence from The Social Network, only here it’s harder to follow which Jobs is yelling what at which Sculley.
A genericized electronic version of “Where the Streets Have No Name” by future iTunes shills U2 greets Jobs’s arrival onstage, then carries us off to the late ’90s, where Wozniak and Hertzfeld pop up again, like aggrieved ghosts of Christmases past. Then Jobs and 19-year-old Lisa (Perla Haney-Jardine) have it out in front of massive black-and-white portraits of the pantheonic culture heroes who starred in Apple’s “Think different” campaign. A key shot encourages us to think of Lisa as Bob Dylan (to Jobs’s Mr. Jones, I guess), and she gets what feels like the last word: “Think is a verb, making differently an adverb.” It should be a mic drop, but of course it isn’t. There’s still time for Jobs to chase her down and tell her what we want to hear — that he’s his own shittiest product, an emotional Newton, a very good wizard and a very not-great man. Oh, and — 2000s spoiler alert — he promises to make her something to replace that ugly cassette Walkman she’s still carrying around. The Isaacson book suggests that the relationship Jobs and Lisa struck up as she got older was fragile, and that they’d grown apart again before Jobs got sick; the movie grants him absolution by leaving off where it does. Except it’s more than absolution — in the last scene, brimming with strobe-lit rapture playing out on the principal actors’ faces and a stormingly emotive Maccabees song I assume is titled “They Called Us After Coldplay Said No,” it’s strongly implied that in finally accepting dadhood, Jobs also attained godhood.
He’s rendered remote and holographic, a benevolent presence you can see but not touch. I thought of the end of Wild Palms, when Robert Loggia catches a computer virus while attempting to upload himself to the Cloud and boils away into loose pixels while singing “Hello, I Must Be Going,” and of the parts of Cats when the felines sing one of their kind up to the Heaviside layer, but your user experience may vary. Obviously, ending a Steve Jobs movie is no easy task; if I recall correctly, the Kutcher version basically leapfrogs over years of untidy history to Think different, then leaves off so abruptly that it might as well have cut to a hastily scrawled title card reading “NOTE: STEVE JOBS DIED ON THE WAY BACK TO HIS HOME PLANET.” Sorkin and Boyle’s movie ends more gracefully, but its uplift comes more or less out of nowhere, and unless you’ve been holding out for permission to keep thinking of Jobs as a hero, it might leave you feeling cheated. I like the rest of Steve Jobs enough to want to pretend they did it that way on purpose.