When passionate visionaries leave the stage before their time, their lives become the stuff of legend. It was true of John Lennon, Jim Morrison, Mozart, James Dean, and countless others of whom we ask, what could have been had they lived?
It is also true of Steve Jobs. You might say, wait a second, Jobs was a computer guy who made a krillion dollars inventing, then reinventing Apple Computer. Some would think of him in the same breath as Michael Dell or Bill Gates. How could he be equated with musicians and actors and artists?
Well, Jobs was an artist. That’s how he saw himself, and that’s how the legend that is defining his life is categorizing him now. The new biopic Steve Jobs, does a fine job to perpetuate that legend, but it is also adds some darker elements to the picture that are being disputed by those who knew the man best.
The Steve Jobs of the film comes off as a genius who knows he is a genius, and has little time for debating that fact with the other more level headed people in his orbit. In all fairness, visionary people with high IQs can be difficult to deal with; after all, they think different. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.) And they often grow weary of trying to stop all the time and explain their motivations to people who just can’t keep up.
Jobs as played by Michael Fassbender fits this mold and then some. He is a Grade A ballbuster with a sharp tongue, thin skin, and uncompromising world view that doesn’t slow down to take into account the concerns of others. He embodies the maxim that you don’t build an empire by being Mr. Nice Guy.
It is debatable whether this was an accurate portrayal of the man. People who were close to Jobs have come out in criticism of the film’s version of his life. But director Danny Boyle and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin reportedly relied on Walter Isaacson’s authorized biography of Jobs as their source material. And while Jobs never read the final version of Isaacson’s book, he worked very closely with the writer on the project before his death in 2011.
The film uses three pivotal product launches as the backdrop to explore Jobs’ life and his personality. We see Jobs micromanaging the details of each event while trying to maintain the same kind of dictatorial control over his complex and secretive personal life.
It’s a clever storytelling tactic in that it reinforces the idea that Jobs ran his life and the lives around him like an uncompromising film or stage director. At one point, Fassbender’s Jobs says with no small amount of irony or humility to Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak (played by Seth Rogen), “Musicians play their instruments. I play the orchestra.”
The film unfolds much like a stage drama, with major players in Jobs’ personal and professional life popping in, prompting brief flashbacks and reminiscences of pivotal points in Jobs’ life – building the Apple II with Steve Wozniak, interacting with the daughter he denied for so many years, and his epic fight with the board for control of Apple.
Sorkin, whose previous work on The Social Network proved that compelling drama can be found in the lives of tech geek entrepreneurs, does solid work in distilling the major dramatic elements of Jobs’ life and making them screen-worthy. I can only speculate as to whether he is focusing on truth, crafting drama, or feeding the legend. Perhaps he is doing a little of all three.
Steve Jobs is a movie, and it should be treated as such. It seeks to entertain. It glosses over Jobs’ supportive upbringing, choosing to fixate on the dramatic elements of his adoption at birth. And nothing at all is mentioned about his wife and children; instead the film chooses to focus on his relationship with Lisa, the daughter he long denied as his own.
In the end, the film chooses to embrace and perpetuate Steve Jobs the legend rather than fully explore Steve Jobs the man. This makes for interesting storytelling, and the movie is entertaining. I do recommend it on that level. However, if you really want to learn what made Steve Jobs tick, pick up Isaacson’s book, or check out a good Netflix documentary.