Steve Jobs didn't write code. He was not a designer. He didn't actually make anything. Yet he, more than any other individual, represents the technology age. Somewhere in the middle of the new biopic based on his life, Jobs' original partner, Steve Wozniak, played by Seth Rogen, tells him just as much. He is exasperated -- utterly worn out by Jobs' unreasonable demands and exhausting antics. And he is speaking aloud what everyone watching up to that point -- what everyone who knows even a little bit about Steve Jobs -- is wondering. What is so great about this man and the things he has been able to coax out of his colleagues and employees that we should feel compelled to tolerate the total package?
I'm not sure Danny Boyle, Aaron Sorkin or Michael Fassbender, respectively the director, writer and star of Steve Jobs, have an answer they can offer us. I'm increasingly certain, having seen the film just a few days ago, that that may have been the point.
The story is structured in three parts, each before one of Jobs' infamous theatrical product launches. (The first for the original Macintosh, the second for the NeXT computer, during Jobs' time in the wilderness away from Apple, and the third for the iMac.) In each instance, Jobs is surrounded by those he trusts and confronted by those he has wronged or vice versa.
Joanna Hoffman, played by Kate Winslet, is steadily among the former group throughout, but everyone else vacillates between the two. Wozniak, engineer Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg), John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), the erstwhile CEO of Apple who ousted Jobs after the failure of Macintosh, and, most importantly, his daughter Lisa, whom Jobs initially refuses to acknowledge, and her mother Chrisann (Katherine Waterston) are enemies at different points. Just as significant as their enemy status is the fact that Jobs doesn’t treat any of them particularly well even when he’s not on the warpath. He’s abusive to and dismissive of the people who actually build the wonderful machines he helps to conceive. He’s cold and cruel to his daughter and her mother.
In short, he’s a jerk, but he’s an enchanting one. This, Boyle and Sorkin, through an immensely talented vessel like Fassbender, are able to nail perfectly. This is an engrossing film from the very first moment. Sorkin’s usually snappy dialogue steers far clear of preachy Newsroom territory, and it is a perfect match for the steadicam-heavy shots. Much like the classical music used in the film’s score, each part only seems to gain velocity — the dialogue and constant swiveling, swerving movement of the camera building to an explosive conclusion. It’s an uncomfortable but still enjoyable experience, one that seems to fit perfectly with the Steve Jobs they are trying to present.
The question begged by all of this: is Jobs more wizard or Wizard of Oz? Put another way — is this irascible, unreasonable persona of his a facade to hide his minimal tangible contributions to some of the most glorious innovations of the last 30 years, or, conversely, was it integral to his and Apple’s success?
The film is pleasantly indeterminate on the balance of things. A lot of the time, Steve Jobs was an asshole because simply because he could be. Some of the time, he kind of had to be. Perhaps you can’t have one without the other, and maybe that’s the lesson to take from his life. There’s good. There’s bad. It’s all leading to something significant, but in the cosmic ledger books, it’s hard to balance it all one way or the other.
This conclusion by Boyle and Sorkin is at once hollow and complete. And in a lot of ways that makes their treatment of their subject perfectly spot-on.