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If you’re a fan of Steve Jobs, the Apple co-founder and digital age revolutionary, you might find Steve Jobs the movie a bit hard to take. It shows the worst of the man.
If you’re a fan of Aaron Sorkin, who wrote the screenplay portraying the complexities of his subject, you’ll probably love this new film from director Danny Boyle.
If you celebrate human achievement, you’ll wish the movie gave us more of what made Jobs a worthy subject of a movie to begin with.
The film is in three acts, each taking place backstage just before major product launches: for the Mac, in 1984; the Cube, from Jobs’ post-Apple company NeXT in 1988; and the iMac, after Jobs returned to Apple in 1998. Each act focuses on his relationships with people central to his life.
Audiences familiar with Jobs’ very public life or its treatment in Walter Isaacson’s biography Steve Jobs and the movie The Pirates of Silicon Valley will not find new revelations in this film, but will find spoilers in this review.
The film starts just before the Mac launch. Jobs (Michael Fassbender) is attending to every detail and must have everything perfect. When he spots potential glitches no one else would notice, he tells his staff to “fix it,” or else.
Into this pressure cooker comes his former girlfriend, Chrisann (Katherine Waterston), and his 5-year-old daughter, Lisa (Makenzie Moss). But Jobs denies Lisa is his daughter, in spite of a paternity test that showed he was. He goes as far as to offer a bizarre algorithm to suggest the contrary. Chrisann lives in poverty and insists that the rich Jobs help her and Lisa. He does take a moment to show Lisa how the new Mac works, showing glimmers of a father. He resentfully says he’ll buy Chrisann a house, but he doesn’t take moral responsibility for the child he has created.
By 1988 at the NeXT computer launch, 9-year-old Lisa (Ripley Sobo) is backstage and Jobs is at least talking to her and showing some concern for her welfare. He won’t let her stay for the launch, insisting on the importance of going to school. She hugs him before leaving, declaring, “I want to live with you.” But he’s still not a father.
At the 1998 iMac launch, he has accepted Lisa (Perla Haney-Jardine) as his daughter, but they’re on the outs because of his differences with Chrisann. Jobs has threatened not to pay her Harvard tuition. His long-suffering PR person, Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), declares she’ll quit unless he does to his relationship with his daughter what he demands his techs do for every glitch in his machines: “Fix it!” She tells him, “You don't care how much money a person makes; you care what they make. But what you make isn't supposed to be the best part of you. When you're a father . . . that's what's supposed to be the best part of you.” Here, scriptwriter Sorkin gets it wrong. After all, nurturing a child to maturity is as much an act of creation as making a computer. In the end, we see Jobs ready to treat Lisa like a daughter.
Jobs’ relationship with Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), who co-founded Apple, reflects a different dark side of Jobs. Woz actually built the Apple I as well as the Apple II. The latter made the company the rich leader in the personal computer revolution. At the Mac launch in 1984, Woz begs Jobs to at least acknowledge the Apple II team. But Jobs thinks that machine is history and now irrelevant. He treats Woz the same way.
After the Mac flops, losing millions of dollars and Jobs’ position at Apple, Woz visits him at the NeXT launch. Jobs is still irritated that when he left Apple, Woz made some comments critical of his former partner. But Jobs tells Woz that since they go way back, he gets a pass for life.
Woz can’t take this condescension. He reminds Jobs that he can’t write code, is not an engineer or designer, and demands, “What do you do?” Jobs explains, “Musicians play their instruments. I play the orchestra.” Jobs is the conductor. Woz tells Jobs the NeXT computer is not ready. Jobs knows this. He also knows that Apple is no longer innovating, that it will eventually need what he’s making.
Flash forward to 1998. Jobs, back at Apple, is about to launch the iMac, which promises to be successful, and he is laying off most of the Apple II team. Woz asks Jobs at least to thank the team leaders who kept the company going for so many years. Jobs won’t. Woz, pushed over the line, tells Jobs, “Your products are better than you!” and “You can be decent and gifted at the same time.” But Jobs is unmoved.
Sorkin gives us no redemption of Jobs with Woz and the Apple II team. Jobs will not share credit.
Jobs brought John Sculley (Jeff Daniels) to Apple as CEO, but the relationship is not smooth. At the Mac launch, Sculley ask Jobs, “Why do people like you, who were adopted, feel like they were rejected instead of selected?” Is Sculley becoming a faux father figure for Jobs? The Mac flops, with initial sales of only 35,000 rather than 1 million.
Flash forward. Sculley confronts Jobs before the NeXT launch because Jobs has been saying Sculley fired him. Sculley reminds Jobs that he was trying to push out Sculley because Sculley was cutting back on the money-losing Mac in favor of the money-making Apple II. In flashbacks Sculley tells Jobs, “The board believes you're no longer necessary to this company.” But Jobs tell Sculley he doesn’t care about his shareholders because he is an artist, and “artists lead and hacks ask for a show of hands!”
In the relationship between Jobs and Sculley, Sorkin takes us into heavy psychologizing territory, trying to explain the contradictions in Jobs. We see Jobs acknowledge he seeks control, though Scully reminds the adopted Jobs that no newborn baby has control. Jobs’ computers are inseparable software and hardware bundles. Jobs wants as few ports as possible so users can’t add peripherals; therefore, he controls the end-to-end user experience. We do wonder if Jobs’ refusal to acknowledge Lisa as his daughter is part of his desire to avoid what he can’t control.
Jobs went on to be a dominant, world-class force, a tech rock star in part because he thought of himself as an artist, a creator with a vision that would change the world, not just a businessman selling whatever.
In the film we see Jobs’ roles clashing. When urged to consider whether his customers wanted the end-to-end-controlled Mac, he argues that a playwright doesn’t seek edits from the audience. Jobs is driven by his vision, which at times drives him into brick walls.
Sorkin’s drama accentuates the negative, and we wish there were more about what made Jobs and Apple so successful. There’s no mention of the fact that while away from Apple, Jobs helped make Pixar into a revolutionary computer animation film company. We do see the germ for the iPod emerge at the end of the film, but we know that Jobs went on to dwarf the success of the iMac by creating iPhones and iPads. The artist had an audience in sync with his creations! We know Jobs went on to become a happier individual, more at peace with himself, Lisa, and perhaps on better terms with Woz.
Perhaps for Sorkin the artist, the later years of Jobs didn’t fit his creation. But Sorkin’s treatment will at least have audiences reflecting on what makes greatness and, we hope, concluding with Woz that “you can be decent and gifted at the same time.”
Steve Jobs and Philosophy on Amazon
Edward Hudgins is research director at the Heartland Institute and former director of advocacy and senior scholar at The Atlas Society.