Rated R. Running time: 2 hours 2 min.
Our content ratings (1-10); Violence 1; Language 5; Sex /Nudity 1.
Our star rating (1-5): 4.5
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?
Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
and crowned them with glory and honor.
You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under their feet…
Steve Jobs was notorious for his hubris, and scriptwriter Aaron Sorkin certainly shows this in his dramatic adaptation of Walter Isaacson’s subject-approved Jobs biography. In a heated exchange between his partner and co-founder of Apple, Steve “Woz” Wozniak (Seth Rogen), Jobs says that the whole universe was made in six days, so they should be able to fix the current problem, to which Woz retorts that he (Jobs) will have to tell them how he did it. Clearly, the Psalmist was describing mere mortals, and not Steve Jobs, self-admitted genius who changed the world forever!
The film begins with a 1974 newsreel clip of famed sci-fi writer and essayist Arthur C. Clarke discussing a room-filling computer and predicting a future in which we will with ease gather “all the information you need in a compact form,” computers becoming as common place as telephones. This was only about a decade before Steve Jobs and his team brought this about.
Director Danny Boyle and Sorkin do not try to give us a biography of the man who changed our world so much—although there is a flashback to his launching Apple in his garage, but nothing of his conversion to Zen Buddhism, of his trip to India, or of the background of his love affair with Chrisann Brennan that led to the conception and birth of their daughter Lisa. Nor do we learn here that his role in the Pixar animation studios impacted the film industry so greatly and made him a major shareholder in the parent Walt Disney. Instead, the film focuses upon three major presentations Jobs made between 1984 and 1989, stopping before his marriage to Laurene Powell and fathering of three more children.
It has been pointed out that the film is structured like a three-act play, and certainly Sorkin’s wordy script makes for a stagy film. The action is mainly verbal, various characters confronting Jobs, and the two squaring off, often while walking around backstage minutes before he is to face the audience. You might even call this a “backstage drama,” akin to those popular 70 and more years ago.
Act One takes place at De Anza Community College in Cupertino, Calif., in 1984, as Jobs (Michael Fassbender) is getting ready to launch the first Macintosh personal computer. His constant companion, describing herself as his “work wife,” is Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), a marketing executive always ready to meet his imperious demands. Fortunately she is a strong character, able to stand face to face when he asks at one point, “What is your problem?” and she responds, “I don’t know, but I’m sure it can be traced directly back to you.”
His foils are his system-software developer Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg) and long-time friend and partner Steve “Woz” Wozniak (Seth Rogan). The first reports that he is unable to get the Macintosh to say “Hello” when it is turned on. Jobs sweeps aside his explanations, telling him to fix it, that it must perform as he intends. Woz argues with him that their product should be open source rather than closed, as well as asking that Jobs give credit to the team that produced Apple II. (Woz himself resents his partner claiming most of the credit for their collaborative work.) As if this were not enough his former girl friend Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston) comes seeking support money for her and their young daughter Lisa (Makenzie Moss). Job at first refuses but then relents, although he still refuses to admit that Lisa is his daughter.
Act Two takes place five years later, after he was forced out of the company he co-founded, Apple. The setting is the huge opera house in San Francisco where an impatient audience of investors and adoring fans wait for Jobs to introduce NeXT, a high end computer intended for the educational market. Hoffman is there to try to keep everything on schedule, as are Woz, the latter wanting Jobs to acknowledge those who made the Apple II the success that brought in such large profits. Chrisann Brennan is present with their 9 year-old daughter (now played by Ripley Sobo). Though still denying paternity, Jobs is drawn to her by her precocious use of his computer. Joining them is the man whom he had recruited from Pepsi to be the Apple’s CEO John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), and who was responsible for forcing him to leave the firm. During a verbal skirmish with Scully Jobs states, “Artists lead, and hacks ask for a show of hands.”
Act Three unfolds in 1998 in San Francisco’s stately Davies Symphony Hall, where again Hoffman rushes around frantically trying to keep things on schedule for introducing the iMac. Now 43, Jobs has returned in triumph to lead the floundering Apple out of its steep decline. He again refuses the pleas of Woz, prompting the frustrated man to declare, “You can be decent and gifted at the same time.” It is obvious that this is a sentiment that has never entered the mind of his genius former partner. And yet Jobs does reveal a touch of humanity in the way that he relates to his now 19 year-old daughter Lisa (Perla Haney-Jardine). When she gets angry and stomps off, he follows her up to the rooftop, even though this means he will be late for his presentation. In a way this scene of a father at last acknowledging and reconciling with his daughter is the emotional pay-off for the film, the reason for inserting the unrealistic presence of Chrisann Brennan and Lisa into the earlier two acts. Maybe even the notoriously insensitive Steve Jobs has a heart after all. We do know from other sources that she had chosen to live with him.
Although controversy has arisen over whether the film is a hatchet job or gives too much credit to Jobs, both the script and the director’s dynamic handling of it results in compelling viewing. Jobs’ arrogance and insensitivity to others are fully displayed, as well as the psychological complexities of his relationships. John Sculley raises the interesting question, “Why do people like you, who were adopted, feel like they were rejected instead of selected?”
In the midst of a heated argument the frustrated Wuz spews out a long question that brings an answer that is very illuminating as to Jobs’ role at Apple: “You can’t write code… you’re not an engineer… you’re not a designer… you can’t put a hammer to a nail. I built the circuit board. The graphical interface was stolen from Xerox Parc. Jef Raskin was the leader of the Mac team before you threw him off his own project! Someone else designed the box! So how come ten times in a day, I read Steve Jobs is a genius? What do you do?” Jobs responds, “I play the orchestra, and you’re a good musician. You sit right there and you’re the best in your row.”
Jobs was indeed peerless in his skill at playing the orchestra, but we might wonder if he needed to be so much like the tyrnnical jazz teacher Terence Fletcher in Whiplash. There is little doubt that few persons in the late 20th century have affected our personal and business lives as much as the head of the company that launched the world into the world of the personal computer because of his vision. In the argument with Wuz and others about their computer being open source or closed, we can see that Jobs had the broader vision. For Wuz the market was the geeks who loved to tinker with a computer, but for Jobs it was the vastly larger audience that would never learn codes or know anything about a circuit board, but who, if a monitor and keyboard were linked to a processor and then to an internet, would gladly buy a machine with which they could communicate with the world. It would not matter that the system was closed, impervious to tinkering, but it would matter in terms of profits if his system were not compatible with others. Whether or not Jobs was, as he considered himself, a Mozart of the computer age, there is no doubt that it is not only the Apple shareholders that are in debt to him. Like him or not, we all are his beneficiaries, and this film does a pretty good job of showing how and why. And as person of faith, I especially love the rooftop reconciliation, which we witness.
This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the November issue of Visual Parables.