I've been both eagerly anticipating and warily dreading Steve Jobs, the latest movie about Apple founder Steve Jobs, ever since I heard that Aaron Sorkin would be writing the screenplay. Sorkin writes some of the best dialogue in the business, proven by movies I love that he's written like A Few Good Men, Moneyball, and The Social Network. At the same time, Sorkin is known for not letting facts get in the way of what he considers compelling characters and a good story with an interesting structure, which is perhaps best illustrated by the many factual discrepancies in his retelling of the creation of Facebook in The Social Network. Sorkin's screenplay is based on Walt Isaacson's authorized Steve Jobs biography, where Isaacson was given almost unprecedented access to the Apple CEO. Though while Isaacson's book was celebrated upon its release, it later (rightly IMO) received criticism from people in the tech world for focusing too much on Jobs' early life when his insensitive, immature behavior was at its worst instead of focusing on the middle and later periods of his life as he got wiser, nicer, became a better manager, and debuted a string of era-defining products. Throw in the drama involved in finding a director, casting the role of Steve Jobs, and fights over the film with Jobs' widow Laurene Powell, and it was hard to know what Steve Jobs would end up being.
But perhaps as importantly, I've been using Apple products for almost my whole life, starting from when my father brought home the first Macintosh. After college (a few years after Jobs' return to Apple), I started following Apple's product launches, then became interested in Jobs himself and how his strategies, aesthetics, vision, showmanship, and values permeated Apple, eventually transforming it into the most unique, admired, and valuable companies in the world. I've seen the books, articles, interviews, documentaries, and the ill-fated Ashton Kutcher biopic that highlight what a temperamental jerk Jobs could be, and many of those stories are incredibly scathing. But I hardly think Jobs' capacity for cruelty, insults, and emotional outbursts when he was a younger man is the most defining thing about his entire life.
So going into Steve Jobs, I was trying to balance some conflicting thoughts. I greatly enjoyed Sorkin's The Social Network despite its factual liberties, but was this because I knew little about the creation of Facebook and didn't have a personal interest in Zuckerberg? I understand creative license and why films need to condense, simplify, fudge, and invent to create drama, but is there a point where this can be considered excessively dishonest? Could I accept Steve Jobs as fiction despite the fact that the "characters" have the names of actual people (most of whom are still alive) and depicts alternate versions of events that actually happened? And, in spite of all this, is Steve Jobs any good? Watch the trailer for Steve Jobs below.
My big takeaway from the film is this: While technically a movie, Steve Jobs is actually a play -- with all that entails.
(For clarity, "Steve Jobs" is the movie, "Jobs" is the actual Steve Jobs, and "SJ" is the character depicted by Michael Fassbender.)
Sorkin structured Steve Jobs as essentially three approximately 40-minute acts that play out in real time backstage in the moments before the unveiling of the original Macintosh (1984), the NeXT workstation (1988), and the first iMac (1998). It's a clever narrative device because it adds increasing momentum and urgency to each act as the clock ticks down to the start of the event and the cheers of the capacity crowds waiting for SJ (Fassbender) grow louder. It also helps illustrate how big and factually loose of a dramatization Steve Jobs is, since SJ spends those precious minutes before the events repeatedly having important, often heated conversations/confrontations with six key people from his life, something no sane person (especially SJ) would do just before giving a high-stakes presentation before thousands (if not millions) of people. But it works in a play, where the number and type of settings must be limited.
Those aforementioned six people are: Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), head of Apple and NeXT PR and SJ's "work wife"; Steve "Woz" Wozniak (Seth Rogen), the computer whiz (and SJ's friend since high school) who started Apple with SJ and designed the internals of Apple's first computers; John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), CEO of Apple from 1983-1993 who was brought in to help run the business end of the company; Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stulbarg), one of the designers of the Macintosh system software; Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston), SJ's former girlfriend and mother of SJ's first child; and Lisa Brennan (Makenzie Moss, Ripley Sobo, Perla Haney-Jardine), SJ and Chrisann's daughter who SJ denied was his child for several years.
These conversations are the showcase for what is arguably Sorkin's premiere talent: smart, fast-paced, character-specific, crackling dialogue. And Steve Jobs has tons of it, as characters take turns verbally sparring with SJ as each tries, line by line, to "win" the discussion before someone eventually ends it with a knockout blow. These talks are as action-packed as any fight scene, and while I was worried that viewers might get lost in the flood of names and computer jargon, I realized that watching (and listening) to Steve Jobs is a lot like going to a Shakespeare play, where the rhythm of the dialogue and the performances of the actors convey much more about what's happening than a close understanding of the words they're saying. And all the actors in Steve Jobs do terrific work, even if their characters are often reduced to one or two traits that often have little or nothing to do with the real-life people they portray. I plan to write more about this in a future post.
The thing is, all of these conversations happen in a very theatrical way -- and I mean that in both senses of the word.
Despite all of the trademark Sorkin walking and talking, I was constantly thinking about how Steve Jobs seems to be written for the stage -- in fact, I'd be shocked if Steve Jobs isn't performed as a play within the next five years. It could largely be done with a small dressing room set near the side of the stage and video screens to show flashbacks, transitions, expository information, and other spaces within the event location. And for better and worse, the actors' performances, while all good, seem calibrated to play to the back of the room, with lots of shouting and emotional outbursts. After one exchange is finished, you scarcely have a moment to regroup before SJ is shuttled to another confrontation.
This desire to heighten every moment and tie them to a broad emotional arc that can be read from a distance creates a lot of drama, but not much truth. This is why calling the film Steve Jobs and tying it to the life of actual people and events is so problematic. It's one thing to portray a fictional character whose successes and failures are driven by an adoption-based obsession with control and who can only be redeemed by reconciling with the one aspect of his life (his illegitimate daughter) that is beyond his control. And as Steve Jobs proves, it can make for a very entertaining movie. But to say that this is the truth about Jobs is pop psychology at best, and is not at all borne out by most facts, friends of the real Jobs, or even the biography Steve Jobs claims to be based on. Jobs' desire for end-to-end control of Apple's products stemmed from his belief that controlling "the whole stack" led to a superior experience that would delight and satisfy users, a philosophy that time has proven to be correct. But it's hardly the kind of thing to create an emotional catharsis that will bring tears to a viewer's eyes.
Sorkin churlishly fired back at current Apple CEO Tim Cook when Cook described attempts to encapsulate Jobs' life on film as "opportunistic" (Sorkin later apologized). But considering how little the SJ in Steve Jobs resembles the real man, how far the events of the film stray from what actually happened, and how much less money Steve Jobs would make if anyone else's name was the film's title, "opportunistic" would seem to be an apt description. Still, that doesn't mean that Steve Jobs isn't fun to watch, because it is. The film has its excellent writing and performances (especially Winslet's and Daniels') to thank for that. I worry that Steve Jobs will give people a distorted idea of who Jobs was and what it takes to become a visionary of his stature, but I'm heartened by the fact that, despite the success of The Social Network, no one seems to think that Mark Zuckerberg and the character Jesse Eisenberg played in the film are the same person.
We may never know why and how Steve Jobs became someone who could, as Jobs put it, "put a dent in the universe", and it seems like people will keep on offering their theories, even if they have to fudge the facts to prove them. But whatever you think of Jobs or Apple products, it's hard to dispute the impact his thinking has had on our lives. A fitting example of this occurred when I saw Steve Jobs. As the movie ended and the credits rolled in the darkened theater, I watched as nearly every audience member, one by one, turned on their smartphones, as if lighting pale blue candles as a tribute to the man who, among other things, is responsible for the design and interface of the modern smartphone, an object few of us could live without. No matter what anyone says, thinks, or makes up about Steve Jobs, we are living in the future that he envisioned and helped bring into existence.