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'Steve Jobs' Is the Thrilling, Sacrilegious, and Frightening Biopic We Never Needed

The new biopic by Danny Boyle and Aaron Sorkin comes on the heels of a searing documentary and a mawkish Ashton Kutcher vehicle. Can anybody get Steve Jobs right?
Still from the trailer to 'Steve Jobs.' Courtesy of NBCUniversal

Kind of like the New Testament, there is only one authorized book about Steve Jobs. It's Walter Isaacson's voluminous biography, Steve Jobs. Nobody else ever got the access that Isaacson got with Jobs and his inner circle. In what was probably the most magnanimous decision he ever made, Jobs decided not to exercise any editorial control over the final book. What we have, then, is a singular, and credible, historical record. Now director Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours) and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network) have turned the book into a movie. This might be the only truly authorized biopic of Jobs ever made. So stop looking at your iPhone and pay attention.


Much of Jobs's creation story, aggregated over 30 years of nonstop media attention, is undisputed, even indisputable—he took a lot of LSD in college; he was "mercurial," a word so often pegged to his name that he once looked it up at a product launch, in front of several thousand people, and decided he liked it; he wore black turtlenecks and white New Balances; he built a company that now has more cash reserves than the US treasury. When he died, he acceded to the pantheon of world-changing figures whose visages graced his renowned "Think Different" campaign (Einstein, the Dalai Lama, Picasso, among others). Describing Jobs in extended religious metaphors is so rote that there's even a book for that.

The only thing that Fassbender appears to inspire is fear.

And yet put Steve Jobs the movie alongside two other recent big-screen portraits, Alex Gibney's two-hour-long documentary, Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine, and Joshua Michael Stern's mawkish 2013 film, Jobs, and you see that Jobsian exegesis is by no means a resolved field. "So many people disagree about him," Danny Boyle told me over the phone. "There are so many that are devoted to him, who will tell a very different tale, than those who were hurt or were even destroyed by him."

In Steve Jobs' three tightly wound acts, the tech oracle (played by a sinewy Michael Fassbender) prepares for three of his mythical product launches, in 1984, 1988, and finally 1998, which is when he unveiled the blue iMac that my father bought—our first family computer. By the movie's accounting, Jobs likes to rehearse for the shows by berating his marketing director, Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), denying paternity of his daughter, Lisa (Makenzie Moss, Ripley Sobo, and Perla Haney-Jardine), wrangling with Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), and shouting down the company's CEO from 1983 to 1993 John Sculley (Jeff Daniels). We can only presume that he has already practiced his lines for the actual technology demo off-screen.


As the human intrigue unfolds backstage, a voracious audience grows impatient: They stamp their feet, they do the Wave. When Danny Boyle tracks the camera across the brimming crowds, he's not exaggerating. Jobs's "marketing performance art," as Fortune's Peter Elkind described the famous launches, inspired a level of hysteria that has yet to find a match in the world of Silicon Valley demos. Watch a couple of minutes of Tesla's CEO Elon Musk scrabbling through the launch of the Model X SUV: Not all tech product launches are created equal. According to Isaacson, one of the ovations at the 1984 launch went on for five minutes. After the 1988 launch, of the NeXT computer, the New York Times' Andrew Pollack declared Jobs "the Andrew Lloyd Weber of product introductions."

When the real Jobs unveiled the Macintosh, in that 1984 launch, the computer introduced itself by saying "hello!" In the movie, we are introduced to Jobs in media tantrum. One of his first lines is "fuck you." On the receiving end: the Macintosh engineer Andy Hertzfeld, played by Michael Stuhlbarg. Why? Because he can't get the computer to say "hello!" Heads are going to roll.

In a 1986 profile of Jobs for Esquire, the journalist Joe Nocera describes how the computer magnate "can't resist showing off his brutal, withering intelligence whenever he's around someone he doesn't think measures up."

"That was one of the extraordinary things about doing the research," Boyle said. "How many people are devoted to him in a way that sometimes has to do with cruelty, I'm afraid." Fassbender is very good at this: Whenever he hears something that he doesn't like (which is often), he bristles, seethes, and snaps." Michael is very intimidating," Boyle admitted. "The studio, they're always giving you notes about likability, and you can see them coming a mile off."


"He's not going to make it more likable," Boyle said.

This makes for powerful—and, at times, thrilling—cinema. But cruelty alone cannot be the basis for such devotion. When the real Jobs would have quietened, and folded into himself, Fassbender remains relentlessly frightening. He is toned, sociopathic, a bit like Patrick Bateman in American Psycho. Even the real Jobs's phenomenal capacity to deeply inspire those around him is minimized here: Joanna Hoffman is given his famous line about "making a dent in the universe." After an excessively mean exchange with his five-year-old daughter, Jobs returns to threaten Hertzfeld some more, in case he (and we) hadn't already gotten the memo. He pounds on the sweating Hertzfeld's chest. Is that a managing style, or is it harassment? In 2015, it depends whose lawyer you ask. The only thing that Fassbender appears to inspire is fear.

Many have tried to explain Jobs's fanaticism when it came to his designs, and his tendency to resort to alarming outbursts when he didn't have his way. In a remarkably tone-deaf eulogy for the New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell declares, "The great accomplishment of Jobs's life is how effectively he put his idiosyncrasies… in the service of perfection." For proof, he cites the time Jobs demanded that the buttons to control a sliding door in his private plane be replaced with a simpler design. Tim Cook, one of the few people in the world actually qualified to talk about Jobs, has a far more credible explanation. He tells Walter Isaacson that his former boss's tantrums were "really just the way he showed passion."


And, to be sure, this passion manifested itself in more than just fury. Isaacson describes how during a rehearsal for the iMac launch, Jobs flipped out about the computer's CD tray (he wanted a CD slot). Like Fassbender, he yelled; but then, unlike Fassbender, he cried. (This was not exceptional—Jobs cried often.) Such a scene would have made for gripping cinema. Though Fassbender is so ruthless, so calculating, so tightly wound with vitriol, one doubts he'd be capable of yielding a single tear even if he wanted to.

If the Stern film is too easy on Jobs, and the Sorkin film is too savage, the documentary smartly fits somewhere in between.

Weirdly, where Boyle and Sorkin, in their "authorized" biopic, are reticent to portray Jobs as anything less than a tyrant, Joshua Michael Stern's 2013 Jobs—the unauthorized movie—has the opposite problem. As Jobs, Ashton Kutcher occasionally breathes fire, but he spends far more of his time crying, or gesticulating moronically while delivering overwrought homilies about creativity and beauty. Stern's goodwill toward the historical Jobs isn't just annoying; it leaves gaping holes in the plot. So much about what happened in Jobs's career, particularly his early career, and above all when it came to his ouster from Apple, which was driven by what Boyle described as his " very complex and challenging character." When Apple CEO John Sculley (Matthew Modine) warns Jobs that he could be fired if he keeps "heading down the path [he's] on," it's unclear what that path is: Jobs has shown none of the vitriol and unpredictability that Sculley is referring to.


Both films' one-sidedness is problematic. But you're here to be entertained, and so what would you prefer, waterworks or fireworks? For "The Book That Inspired the Movie"—as a sticker on my copy of the biography proclaims—Isaacson famously conducted 40 interviews with Jobs, and a hundred interviews with his colleagues and family. But veracity wasn't a priority for the filmmakers. "Accuracy," Seth Rogen explained in a press conference for the film, "isn't necessarily, creatively, the thing that portrays someone the best."

And so, in Steve Jobs, when Apple's board votes to oust Jobs from the company, it is at night and, inexplicably, pouring down rain (the actual meeting happened in the morning, in sunny Cupertino). With any other tech entrepreneur—say, for example, Bill Gates—such dramatic license would be not only permissible, but advisable. On the other hand, Steve Jobs's story, in both Isaacson's account and elsewhere, is phenomenally dramatic. In one particularly memorable passage, John Sculley's wife corners Jobs in a restaurant parking lot when she learns about his machinations against her husband:

"Can't you look at me in the eyes when I'm talking to you?" she asked. But when Jobs did so—giving her his practiced, unblinking stare—she recoiled. "Never mind, don't look at me," she said. "When I look into most people's eyes, I see a soul. When I look into your eyes, I see a bottomless pit, an empty hole, a dead zone." Then she walked away.


In 2005, when Jobs was preparing what became his Stanford commencement speech, he sought help from Aaron Sorkin. Sorkin put him off repeatedly, only agreeing to read a draft a few days before the ceremony (in an interview with Bloomberg, Sorkin says that he "fixed a couple of typos.") Perhaps Jobs, understandably, saw parts of himself in Sorkin's characters. In footage from a NeXT company retreat in 1985, he is quick-witted and sharp-tongued. He tells his staff, "You don't change your target when you're in the bomb run!" A little later, when talking about the company's strategy, he declares, "The war is called survival; the war is called 'Not running out of money until we get our product on the market." Eighteen years later, he told Jeff Goodell, in a 2003 Rolling Stone interview, "I don't know what hand-wringing is." In light of source material that's this good, so much of the movie's plainly made-up dialogue feels wasteful; the movie's weaker lines—"I was supposed to be Time Magazine's Man of the Year," Jobs tells Hoffman at one point—verge on sacrilege.

I remember walking past an Apple Store in the Meatpacking district in New York two days after Steve Jobs died in 2011. The faithful had covered the store's windows with devotional Post-It notes. There were apples and flowers and candles all along the sidewalk. It is here that The Man in the Machine opens, with Apple fans crying and praying, holding aloft iPads and iPhones with a virtual candle. Presumably none of these people actually knew Jobs. Unlike Ghandhi, he didn't liberate the sub-continent; unlike Bill Gates, he wasn't eradicating polio. Why, then, did so many people cry? Forget trying to figure out whether Jobs was mean or just passionate, a tweaker or a maniac: This is the right question to ask.


The Man in the Machine doesn't need notes from the studio about whether Jobs would make an entertaining, or even credible, movie character. As a result, the film is more pleasingly, wholesomely thrilling than the other movies. Alex Gibney, who admits that his hand is drawn to the iPhone in his pocket "like Frodo's hand to the ring," is at once generous and unflinching. There is a sobering account of Apple's questionable accounting practices, and working conditions at the iPhone factories in China. But the director (whose previous film, Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, addresses that other techno-utopian cult) also makes time for each current of what Boyle referred to as Jobs's " subterranean river of intention." In one archival video, Jobs's spiritual adviser, Kobun Chino Otogawa, tells the story of when the young, guileless Jobs knocks on his door at midnight. "I feel I'm enlightened," he tells Otogawa. "I don't know what to do with this." Otogawa asks for proof of this so-called enlightenment. A week later Jobs returns with a chip for the Lisa computer. (Funnily, the Lisa, which would end up going on sale for $9,995 in 1983, was actually one of Jobs's least inspired—and most unsuccessful—products.)

Chrisann Brennan, Jobs's high school girlfriend and the mother of his human daughter Lisa, gets a lot of screen time in the documentary, just as she does in both of the movies (Steve's wife, Laurene Powell-Jobs, on the other hand, unfairly gets none). At one point, she borrows from Ram Dass's spiritual treatise Be Here Now, one of Jobs's favorite books, to try to explain how a man can be both so inspired and so petty: "Someone goes into a state of enlightenment, but they do it while they're still attached to their ego."


If the Stern film is too easy on Jobs, and the Sorkin film is too savage, the documentary smartly fits somewhere in between. "Power?" Steve asks in one clip, from a 1995 interview, "what is that?" He says this over the interviewer, who was attempting to elaborate on a question. He has a slight smile, as if he knows something that we don't. Jobs, it seems, can be both a hero and a villain at the same time.

After almost 600 pages of what Joanna Hoffman, in the movie, calls "excruciatingly personal" details about Jobs's life, Walter Isaacson concludes that "any judgements must take into account results." In spite of what he calls "the nasty edge to his personality," Jobs "launched a series of products over three decades that transformed whole industries," from the Apple II to iCloud. Maybe, then, it was not merely a coincidence that the Steve Jobs screening I went to was held right across from the Apple Store on 68th Street and Broadway in Manhattan. When I came out onto the street, the first thing I saw was a gigantic, glowing white Apple logo. I was drawn to the light, like Gibney's hand to his iPhone. It was 8 PM, but the store was still crowded in the way that other stores might be crowded the day before Christmas. Everything was shiny and smooth. I put my hand on an Apple watch. I'll probably own one of these someday, I thought.

Steve Jobs, the movie, purposely avoids Jobs's technological achievements. It hints at the possibility of redemption, but in the long run that might not matter: While the man who may or may not have finally patched things up with his daughter is no longer with us, his devices very much are. Boyle told me that when Scott Rudin sent him the script for the movie, he happened to be reading The Circle, by Dave Eggers, which is about an Apple-like corporation run by a trio of Jobsian technologists. "I don't think we appreciate quite how big a turning point it is for us. So you've got to look at the guys, how flawed are they who made this world for us. "

"It's a fundamental part of where art should be looking," Boyle continued. "This new world that we are benignly—apparently benignly—just stepping forth into, abandoning ourselves to it. Abandoning everything as we stroll forward into it."

"These are the guys responsible," he said.

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Steve Jobs opens Friday in theaters nationwide.