Watching Steve Jobs is like getting strapped into a thrill-ride at an amusement park, but instead of those rollercoasters that take the long, slow crawl up the slope, it starts zooming immediately, and for the two-hour running time hardly lets you catch a breath. It is dazzling.
The film, as anyone should know, is about Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, who, posthumously, has attained a visionary status, who some think has changed the world as much as any other person in the last fifty years (for better or worse is questionable). But this movie is about his failures. It is set during three product launches: for the MacIntosh in 1984, Next in 1988, and the iMac in 1998. We get no introductory biography, no title cards. We are dropped media res into Jobs’ world, and at first you may feel dizzy.
Jobs, as played brilliantly by Michael Fassbender, was not an easy man to like. In fact, he was a prick, and we see that over and over again in the film. In Act One, in 1984, he is riding high. The commercial for the MacIntosh had just aired during the Super Bowl (I remember watching it–it is tied into Orwell’s 1984). Jobs is ready to launch it at a theater full of people (one thing I learned about this film is there are people who attend these things like others attend rock concerts or sporting events) when he is beset by problems. Mainly, his ex-girlfriend (Katherine Waterston) is there to complain about not getting enough for money for his daughter, Lisa. Jobs denies she is his daughter, even though a DNA test confirmed it. The voice component of the MacIntosh is not working (he wants it to say “hello”) and engineer Michael Stuhlbarg is bullied into fixing it. He’s also enraged about not being named Time‘s Man of the Year, which instead went to the “computer” as Machine of the Year (with a PC on the cover).
His marketing director, Kate Winslet, runs interference, in one of the most thankless jobs on the planet. Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen) wants Jobs to acknowledge the Apple II team in his presentation, since that is the only product that has made Apple any money, but Jobs refuses. His CEO, John Scully (Jeff Daniels), something of a father figure to him, chats with him just before goes on stage.
The MacIntosh tanked. By the next launch in ’88, Jobs was out at Apple. In flashback, we see how it happened, with Jobs forcing the board’s hand and unanimously voting him out. At the Next launch everyone, including Jobs, thinks it will be failure (it is a computer designed for schools that has over a ten-grand price tag, it doesn’t have an operating system ready, and Jobs is most obsessed with making it a perfect black cube). Lisa is now a bigger part of his life, and Waterston is cracking up. He will again have scenes with Rogen, Winslet, Stuhlbarg, and Daniels, who angrily confronts Jobs about being blamed for firing him.
The last act is Jobs’ successful launch of the iMac, and again, like some kind of O’Neill drama, all of the characters return. This structure is both comforting as someone who loves theater, but also a bit formulaic for a movie. But it allows for some operatic scenes, as the very fine cast gets a chance to bandy about some magnificent words, written by Aaron Sorkin. Early in the film, when Jobs speaks of God, he says, “He sent his only son on a suicide mission, but we love him because he made trees.” In Jobs and Wozniak’s last confrontation, Rogen tells him “I’m tired of being treated like Ringo when everybody knows I’m John,” and Jobs throws out a “Everybody loves Ringo.”
The film also tries to come to terms with just what Jobs’ genius was. Rogen questions it–“What do you do?” Jobs compares himself to a conductor–“I play the orchestra,” but clearly Jobs was a master of the big picture. He was not a techie, but instead saw things as they would be down the road. Sometimes they were spectacular mistakes. MacIntosh crashed and burned because it was a closed system–it was compatible with nothing. You couldn’t even open the back to tinker with it, because Jobs did not want hobbyists fucking with it.
I was enthralled through this whole movie. Yes, it can a little cloying, especially in regards to the relationship with his daughter. Waterston, looking like a dour hippie, has a thankless role of the crazed harridan. But the other characters are vividly rendered. Winslet will probably get an Oscar nod, and Daniels deserves one (he’s had a great year–this film and The Martian), and Rogen and Stuhlbarg are terrific as well. Stuhlbarg, to me, perfectly encapsulates the tech guy who is constantly asked to perform miracles.
Fassbender, of course, is the main attraction. The role is complex and difficult, and he performs it with complete aplomb. You can practically see the wheels turning in the man’s head. There is a thread in the plot about him being adopted (with the talk of Syrian refugees, it’s come to light again that he was the biological son of a Syrian refugee). He has fathered a child, whom he has grudgingly come to love. And. like the prodigal son, he is exiled from the company he creates only to return to save it from destruction. Steve Jobs is like some Biblical epic set in Silicon Valley.