The new film from director Danny Boyle and writer Aaron Sorkin, Steve Jobs, marks the third cinematic interpretation of Apple’s storied co-founder in the past two years — Jobs (Joshua Michael Stern, 2013) and Steve Jobs: Man in the Machine (Alex Gibney, 2015) were the previous two. I have seen all three and still cannot answer the question my sister posed after the credits rolled for this iteration: “Why are people so fascinated by him?”
Is it because the products his company produced are so integral to our day-to-day lives? Because we find Apple products so aesthetically pleasing? So intuitive? So friendly? To borrow a line from the movie, spoken by Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen): “What do you do? You’re not an engineer. You’re not a designer. You can’t put a hammer to a nail. I built the circuit board. The graphical interface was stolen. So how come ten times in a day I read Steve Jobs is a genius? What do you do?”
It’s a little on the nose, but this is Sorkin’s dialogue and on the nose is just the starting point. Steve Jobs — based on Walter Isaacson’s best seller of the same name — tries to answer my sister and Woz’s question once and for all. Steve Jobs may be the best Steve Jobs bio-pic by far, but that doesn’t mean it is a particularly good movie, or successfully answers those questions.
Zeroing in on three product launches: the release of the Macintosh in 1984, NeXT in 1988 and the iMac in 1998, Steve Jobs does away with typical cradle-to-grave story-telling, focusing instead on the backstage antics and political maneuvering that overshadows the impressive products on the stage.
All three periods are connected by a series of character thru lines: Job’s somewhat estranged relationship with his daughter Lisa (Makenzie Moss, Ripley Sobo, Perla Haney-Jardine); his relationship with marketing executive, Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet); his closest friends and programmers, Woz and Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg); Apple’s one-time CEO, John Sculley (Jeff Daniels); and the journalist lingering in the corner ready for a quote, Joel Pforzheimer (John Ortiz).
These story lines aren’t entirely stream-of-consciousness, but they do manage to connect one product launch to the next, providing the third act with an attempt at, albeit overtly contrived, closure.
These relationships may connect the dots, but what takes center stage in Steve Jobs is not just Jobs’s ego, though it is a powerful presence, but the business. In the 1984 launch, Jobs argues with Joanna about how many units they will sell while Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston), Jobs’s one time girlfriend and Lisa’s mother, practically begs for money. Jumping to 1988 and the launch of NeXT, it becomes apparent that NeXT’s perfect black cube is merely a ploy to get Apple to take Jobs back after Sculley had him ousted. The launch of the iMac, and the hint of the iPod, show that Apple is on the brink of financial dominance. The business aspect of consumerism takes center stage, almost pushing any questions of artistry into the orchestra pit.
Almost, but not quite. Apple products may not be the most affordable, but they are the most stylish. Jobs always had an eye, and Boyle, Sorkin and Fassbender play up that angle, making him agonize and nitpick about the measurements of his perfect black cube, how a floppy disk fits in a shirt pocket or why a computer screen should say hello. In a telling flashback, Sculley visits Jobs to find him sitting on the floor of an empty home. Empty, save for two pictures, one of Pablo Picasso, the other of Albert Einstein. Maybe Jobs saw himself as a synthesis of these two men — he did use both in his ad campaigns — or maybe this is how Boyle and Sorkin want to contextualize him.
But to Woz’s question: “What do you do?” Jobs responds with a line a conductor once fed him, “Musicians play their instruments. I play the orchestra.”
Woz considers the line for a beat, “It sounds good, but it doesn’t mean anything.”
Steve Jobs falls into the same trap. It’s a lot of pretty words that sound good, but they don’t say very much.