A Human Poorly Made: Steve Jobs (2015)

by Nandia Foteini Vlachou

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The beginning of Steve Jobs features an unsettlingly prescient interview by Arthur C. Clarke from 1974. The science fiction writer (and co-author of the script of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey)  predicts that in 2001 houses will be equipped with computers, and that people will be able to get all the information they need as well as perform everyday tasks (bank statements and theater reservations are mentioned). The interviewer is skeptical, about society turning ‘computer-dependent’, while Arthur C. Clarke argues that technology will allow for greater mobility. The black-and-white video sets up many of the themes the film touches upon, like the importance of technological advancement, consumption and the glimpse of a dystopian society. 2001 is also specifically mentioned in the film, as well as Hollywood representations of the computer that had rendered it threatening, to justify Jobs’ insistence on creating an object that not only was but also appeared user friendly.

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In a sense, Steve Jobs is the second part of Aaron Sorkin’s diptych on technology, social media and their impact on human relationships (Boyle thinks it’s a trilogy). Common themes anchored around a gifted individual who continually fails to be a decent human being approximate Jobs to The Social Network despite the apparent stylistic differences between their directors, Danny Boyle and David Fincher respectively. Aaron Sorkin has crafted a masterful, cinematic script, with exemplary dialogues and complex, captivating characters. Michael Fassbender excels in the titular role and so does, surprisingly, Seth Rogen playing the other Steve, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak. Only Kate Winslet seems to have been somewhat constrained by the knowledge she was portraying a real life character, and her odd accent is at times strangely distracting.

All these elements notwithstanding, what makes the movie truly great is its inventive narrative structure and its approach to the biopic conundrum: how to make a film about an individual that is not deathly boring. For one thing, Sorkin was clear from the start about not wanting to do a biopic. This is why Michael Fassbender does not look like Steve Jobs and no one was particularly preoccupied about this. Biopics have in fact been plagued by this impersonation tendency, the ridiculous and unnecessary task of presenting us with a life-size copy of a historical figure that moves and talks like they did. The film is also not preoccupied with factual accuracy. It is interesting that Sorkin chooses the photograph-painting contrast to compare his script and the film with the latter, the painting allowing for more creative freedom than the photograph, in its turn considered akin to journalism. It is a rather old-fashioned notion of both painting and photograph, but it has apparently caught on, as critics discuss the ‘impressionistic’ portrayal of Steve Jobs in the film.

Yet the major problem of the biopic lies elsewhere: in the linearity of the ‘cradle to grave’ story (with major ‘highlights’ along the way), as Sorkin himself calls it, whose conventionality rarely allows for visual experimentation. Another problem is that these films rarely manage to either reveal the inner life of the individual they portray or, worse, convey in visual terms what was so great about them (instead of simply telling us). Sorkin went the other way completely, choosing three moments from Jobs’ life, all taking place before the launch of three successive products, none of which include his most iconic (like the iPhone for example).

The sequences (all forty-minute long and happening in real time, including some judiciously placed flashbacks) have been shot in 16 mm (for the 1984 launch of the Macintosh), in 35 mm (for the 1988 launch of NeXT) and in digital (for the 1998 launch of the iMac). The difference in light, texture, and color ensures that each period comes across as distinctive and the bright, saturated colors that Boyle often favors for no purpose at all (such as in the over-the-top and otherwise pointless Trance) here serve him exceptionally well, and so does the jittery camera movements. This is not simply a question of style, no more than style was simply what Steve Jobs’ contribution was to the personal computer development (some prefer to call it a tech revolution).

Each sequence uses technology (the problems faced, the obstacles that need to be overcome, the vision and the drive that makes it all possible) both as subject matter and as allegory for human relationships. The overarching theme of parental relationships ties the three sequences together, ranging from Jobs’ fraught relationship with his daughter Lisa to his own relationship to the biological parents who gave him up for adoption (there is a terrific flashback late in the film that I will not spoil). Some of his most important relationships in the film are also framed in this manner, such as the one with his father figure John Sculley (a terrific Jeff Daniels, who is also the star of Sorkin’s Newsroom), and the motherly figure of Kate Winslet’s Joanna Hoffman (who has been called Jobs ‘work wife’). Hoffman is the only one Jobs will listen to, the only one who truly loves him despite his abominable behavior, the one who scolds and praises him on occasion, much like a mother might do with a difficult child.

Sorkin also ponders on the definition of genius. What makes someone special and does that give them the right to treat others like crap? In a crucial confrontation scene, Wozniak asks: “What do you do? 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! So how come ten times a day I read Steve Jobs is a genius? What do you do?”. The question plays with the elusive nature of genius, as well as with our fundamental incomprehension of it: how do they do what they do? At the same time, Sorkin avoids the pitfall of hagiography. “A creation myth written by a skeptic”, as A. O. Scott writes, the film never veers into the adulation often displayed towards the personality of Steve Jobs who, if not anything else, was a control freak, as his products proudly demonstrate (closed systems, incompatible with everything else, a point that is repeated throughout the film).

In the end, Sorkin may tentatively side with technological innovation but never loses sight of its more sinister aspects. Featuring both in the 1984 sequence and in the major confrontation scene between Fassbender and Daniels in the second sequence, is the 1984 commercial of the Macintosh directed by Ridley Scott (not mentioned by name in Steve Jobs), and widely considered today one of the most influential commercials ever made. In a dystopian society with imagery inspired by George Orwell’s 1984, the commercial features a female figure (vaguely reminiscent of Daryl Hannah in Blade Runner) who attacks the screen transmitting the message of an apathetic society’s leader. We may not be sitting around in gray uniforms looking towards the same screen, but one need not be a pessimist to realize that we are all looking at some kind of screen, more often than not these days manufactured by Apple.

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