Another contender for best movie in this year of fine movies is Universal’s version of Walter Isaacson’s biography, Steve Jobs. As a dramatic portrait of the creator who radically changed the world, it is magnificent. At last, writer Aaron Sorkin’s (Moneyball, The West Wing, The Social Network) breathless dialogue style is filtered and tethered by director Danny Boyle (127 Hours, Slumdog Millionaire), or by Sorkin. The outcome is a poetic depiction of a true American fountainhead. (Read my thoughts on Steve Jobs and my thoughts on Apple).
With an electronic score to match the time frame, which runs from the mid-1980s to the final months of the 20th century, Steve Jobs moves in talking pictures, marking the creative life of a genius in three acts of grand halls filled with crowds, featuring singularly distinctive machines made possible by Apple, the Silicon Valley, California company Steve Jobs founded with Steve Wozniak—arguably the world’s greatest, richest company—and the people in Jobs’s life.
A brilliantly visionary producer talking with people about making products starts the movie. The opening scene displays his insistence upon perfection in a new product, the Mac, at Apple’s Flint Center introduction of the Macintosh personal computer following the revolutionary Super Bowl advertisement based on George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984. The film’s conflict pits Steve Jobs against the world. But it also purports to put Steve Jobs against the audience because it is apparent that the audience is supposed to detest, rather than try to understand, what Jobs says and does. In fact, modern society pushes the audience away from what Jobs wanted, sought and achieved: perfection in integrating form and function in each aspect of life through fostering man’s autonomy. Apple’s ethos is individualism.
Steve Jobs is the individualist.
However, Steve Jobs and Steve Jobs wants, gets and trades more, as Apple does, with a measured achievement in addition to perfection in one’s work—a meaningful, happy life as one’s proper purpose. The ethics of egoism is embedded here if you know how to look for it, though I don’t know if today’s audiences will expend the effort. The tale this simple and magical movie shows and tells, and it’s extremely verbal though not in that irritatingly smug Sorkin tone, is an elegantly rendered tale of a life lived large yet always in the moment. Michael Fassbender’s Steve Jobs is sharp and arrogant, not flip and smug, and he strives to be balanced and whole.
“Artists lead,” Jobs tells a colleague with whom he’s at odds, and one of the things I like about this movie is how skillfully it dramatizes that the greatest minds are usually in conflict with the whole world, “hacks ask for a show of hands.”
Jobs is not a martyr, as depicted here, and it’s worth noting that this is based on a book by the author chosen by Jobs after he read the writer’s biography of Albert Einstein. Jobs is not portrayed as tortured or monstrous. In dealings with people in his company and life—Apple CEO and mentor John Sculley (Jeff Daniels, The Martian), confidante Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet, Little Children), an ex-girlfriend (Katherine Waterston)—he is, like Walt Disney, driven, difficult and daring. Steve Jobs covers the essentials, in thinly drawn, clean and meaningful lines, winks, nods and links to the logo, the machines, the designs, and how Jobs lived; how he ate, listened, relaxed, celebrated, controlled and conducted—mostly, how he thought.
This is not a documentary of Jobs’s business history. There’s no Cube, eWorld or Pixar. Instead, it portrays life in certain, selective products and those moments which align with the launch of those products. So, the impending failure of NeXT at an opera house is placed in its proper context in the second act as lead-in to the iMac in the third and final act at Symphony Hall. Mac fans, Apple employees and evangelists and the press are never far from view, as is Lisa, his daughter, who represents the evidence of progression for a rebel who was adopted, defied laws and rules and dropped out of college. “It would be criminal not to enjoy this moment,” says a character who becomes a friend.
This is the theme of Steve Jobs.
His technology, accounted for and credited to proper sources, including the Apple II, exists merely to serve the moment, not the other way around. Think different, a screen with Apple’s motto says, in one of at least two crucial, dissolving transitions. Steve Jobs does, honoring truth even when it’s inappropriate, improper or hurtful. Among those affected include Wozniak (Seth Rogen, The Guilt Trip), who is as right as Jobs in a climactic encounter, Sculley and a longtime Apple principal (Michael Stuhlbarg) who demonstrates that those who most deserve to get close to the man of the mind are often driven the farthest away.
As Jobs, Fassbender (12 Years a Slave), who looks more like Sting from The Police than Steve Jobs, is as intense and engaging as ever. The actresses playing Lisa also shine and so do others in the cast, with Winslet getting the laugh lines. The audience is likely to be split, not between Mac faithful and those with contempt for Apple, but between those who revere both the perfect union of controlling one’s own life and work and the requisite for achieving it—absolute freedom—and those who seek to manage life and work or have it managed and controlled by others.
Steve Jobs is a passionate movie and not in a Hollywood way. The passion here comes from the art of thinking, the contemplation, the stretching, the using and the experimenting. Technology is not depicted as an end in itself to Steve Jobs—it is not his religion—it is a means of activating his best within and doing it here on earth. With inspiration from singer-songwriters, taking the audience and Jobs from imagination to full awareness of reality, the two-hour Steve Jobs—a rare Hollywood hymn to one Ayn Rand called the most persecuted minority, the individual, specifically the individual who creates to make money—zips by like childhood.