Film and TV

Steve Jobs Digs at the Core of the Apple Icon

Aaron Sorkin opens up a new desktop icon with Steve Jobs, a briskly busy, talkative companion piece to The Social Network. Adapting Walter Isaacson’s biography of the Apple innovator — and covering much of the same ground as Alex Gibney’s documentary Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine — Sorkin’s latest is less an exposé than a distinctly Sorkinian dramatization of well-known material. Still, it’s helmed with whip-smart panache by Danny Boyle and boasts a backstage-drama structure that invites comparisons to last year’s inferior Birdman. This is a swift and searing attempt to pull back the curtain on Jobs and, in the process, investigate the relationship between the myth and the man.

Like Sorkin’s Facebook film, Steve Jobs casts its protagonist (here portrayed by Michael Fassbender) in ironic terms: as a man who triumphantly connected millions of people both through and to technology, yet couldn’t himself figure out how best to interact with others. That dichotomy is underlined at the outset by an archival clip of author Arthur C. Clarke laying out a forecast, to a father and son, of the computers to come and our online techno-future. And it serves as the foundation for Sorkin’s tale. The film offers a rise-fall-rise narrative arc of both a personal and professional sort, charting Jobs’s efforts to change the world with his era-defining home computers, but also his gradual transformation from an unrepentantly prickish and selfish mad genius to one who’s ever so slightly less unrepentantly prickish and selfish.

That’s not to say that Steve Jobs is a hatchet job aimed at cutting its larger-than-life subject down to a more manageable size. If anything, focusing on Jobs’s flaws makes him seem even grander, albeit not necessarily in the nicest way. Here, Jobs comes off as a distinctly difficult sort. At one point, he yells at and humiliates programmer Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg) for failing to get the Mac to say “Hello” for its demo. Jobs views that articulation as vital, given his consuming belief in technology not as IBM-cold and impersonal, but as warm, inviting and inherently human.

The idea that computers should be a reflection, and extension, of their users is central to Jobs’s ethos, and Steve Jobs makes it plain that Apple’s own products — created as minimalist “closed systems” that can’t be opened up and modified — have been fashioned in their fussy, perfectionist, unyielding maker’s flawed-yet-inspired likeness. Such qualities are evident in Jobs’s demands on his staff, including his wifely right-hand woman, Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet). And they’re even more apparent in his refusal to acknowledge his paternity to daughter Lisa. That proves a source of constant conflict with Jobs’s baby-mama, Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston), who in the film’s opening segment rips her former flame for slandering her in the press as a whore. She only backs off, temporarily, once Jobs consents to her child-support wishes — which he does after being moved by Lisa’s natural, intuitive interfacing with the Macintosh’s paint program.

This introductory sequence is staged by Boyle with a laser-focused fleetness and precision that proves in tune with Sorkin’s trademark rat-a-tat-tat verbal volleying. That also goes for other passages in the film, such as Jobs’s disastrous 1988 presentation of a perfectly square educational computer for his new firm NeXT, and then his triumphant 1998 return to Apple to unveil the iMac. Boyle’s technique effectively mirrors his main character, embodied by Fassbender not with the tics of an impersonator, but through a convincing attitude of calculating detachment, ambition and ruthlessness. He doesn’t look like the man, but he feels like him, inhabiting Jobs so fully, and zealously, that the lack of resemblance proves no distraction. 
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Nick Schager is a regular film contributor at Voice Media Group. VMG publications include Denver Westword, Miami New Times, Phoenix New Times, Dallas Observer, Houston Press and New Times Broward-Palm Beach.