The legacy of Steve Jobs is built with praise like “genius,” “innovator,” and “audacious”–and fortified with barbs like “ruthless,” “tyrant,” and “arrogant.” And that’s the magic of the myth surrounding Jobs: He’s given the world indispensable products at the expense of basic morals. It’s a story of Machiavellian proportions that has fed the torrent of Jobs-related documentaries such as Alex Gibney’s Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine, books including the seminal Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson, and Becoming Steve Jobs by Brent Schlender and Fast Company editor-at-large Rick Tetzeli, and, of course, film, with director Danny Boyle and writer Aaron Sorkin’s Steve Jobs as the most recent entry in the annals of Apple lore.
To be clear: This isn’t a straight biopic. Sorkin has likened Steve Jobs to a painting rather than a portrait, which puts the film in a compelling, gray area. It’s rooted in reality but has been artfully packaged into Boyle’s cinematic vision and Sorkin’s rapid-fire dialogue. Steve Jobs is broken into three acts each centered around three of Jobs’s (Michael Fassbender) most monumental product launches: the Macintosh in 1984, the NeXTcube in 1988, and the iMac in 1998. Within each act is the microcosm of Jobs’s deepest personal and professional conflicts with Apple Computer cofounder Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), former Apple CEO John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), and his daughter Lisa and her mother Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston).
“This guy basically said, ‘think different.’ So I think if you’re going to do him, you’ve got to come up with something original,” Boyle says. “The structure, I think, actually told you as much if not more than a conventional biopic would teach you by putting scenes under a microscope.”
For such a dynamic movie, it’s alarmingly sparse: three interior locations, six main characters, and the repetition of product launches and characters picking at the same scabs that never properly healed in the first place.
“[Sorkin] gives you an enormous amount but there’s no manual guiding you how to do it. There’s no stage directions–there’s nothing,” Boyle says. “I’m sure the actors thought, ‘there won’t be time to do any acting because I’m going to be talking the whole time!’ But then you get to a point where you realize it’s a delicious provocation from Sorkin to everyone.”
And part of that provocation are three meticulously crafted blowouts that tether the woolly themes of “audacity,” “revenge,” and “acceptance” in each act.
Murphy’s Law is in full effect: The Macintosh to be unveiled after all the hype of Apple’s iconic “1984” ad isn’t saying “hello,” the exits signs won’t turn off for the dramatic effect of total darkness–safety laws be damned–and your co-worker is achingly desperate for a little recognition. It’s like Jobs is a marionettist frantically pulling at the strings of wayward puppets to reassert control of his surroundings, especially of his estranged ex, Brennan, and their daughter Lisa.
Brennan, who shows up to convince Jobs to increase his child support payments, is basically absorbed into his to-do list. There’s no sentiment on his part–hearing that his daughter is sleeping in a hovel and is going on welfare simply becomes matter-of-fact.
“In the first act, he’s got that angry young man thing about trying to make something appear in front of you that doesn’t exist yet and battling the world so you feel that kind of energy from him,” Boyle says.
The dressing room argument between Brennan and Jobs is sandwiched between his brisk commands for tweaking the event and taking the hard line with Wozniak on acknowledging the Apple II team during his presentation. It’s a layered scene that shows Jobs neutralizing a personal situation to deal with it like a business transaction. That singular focus of Jobs is the audacious line drawn between him and everyone else: He’s a bold innovator and a cold everything else, which apparently to him is mutually exclusive.
The disappointing sales of the Macintosh triggered a domino effect of bad blood within the company and waning demand for Apple computers, which ultimately led to Jobs’s ousting from the company in 1985–a deal that cut Jobs raw on a deeper level than pride. Over the years, John Sculley had become like a father figure to Jobs, who was adopted and left significantly scarred by it.
“This guy who’s so successful, he’s so fucked up about something that he admitted didn’t matter,” Boyle says. “Paul and Clara who adopted him were perfect parents. He changes the world and makes billions but he can’t forget that he was given away–that is weird. You think psychologically you’d never believe that in a fiction–you’d think that’s a bit of a cliché, but it’s true.”
That stranger-than-fiction fuel sparked one of the movie’s most intense flare-ups. In 1988, Jobs was set to unveil the NeXTcube, the pricey, design-conscious desktop of his new company NeXT. Sculley and Jobs square off backstage where three streams of consciousness–the 1988 present and the past how both Sculley and Jobs saw it–weave together to reveal a tapestry of tension, conspiracy, and revenge. The sweeping soundtrack, lush interior, and Sorkin’s relentless dialogue elevate the drama to near operatic levels.
“In the second act, he’s cunning–he’s the illusionist,” Boyle says. “And they always used to say about him, if he’s reasonable, beware because there was a hidden river of intention.”
The argument is a pas deux of emotions and Sorkinese which shouldn’t go unstressed. Boyle’s vision so poignantly frames the piercing dialogue that is the film’s support beam.
“It’s a problem with genius–how do you represent genius? If you seem them doing algorithms, it’s like, ‘I’m not sure I believe that–they’re actors.’ So you give actors the tools that they’re best at, which is language, and you make it the best language ever,” Boyle says. “And so you feel they are brilliant people–and they are brilliant people. They’re not as articulate as this–none of us are. But [Sorkin] uses it to make the characters absolutely brilliant so you feel like you’re in the presence of people who can change the world–and I love that about it.”
The “Mac is back” and so is Jobs, who returned to Apple in 1997 and set the company on the trajectory of innovation and success it’s become synonymous with today. But it all goes back to the question of: At what cost? The second-fiddle complex Woz felt is built upon in each act and it’s in the last act where everything crashes down. What’s notable about this one-on-one is that it’s not that at all–it’s the only argument in the film where a significant amount of people are present. During a run-through for the launch of the iMac, Woz confronts Jobs yet again about his lack of acknowledging the people he’s stepped on to reach his height of celebrity. Originally, the scene took place in a dressing room, but in an effort to show progression, Boyle convinced Sorkin to set it in public.
“The people watching, of course, are the new Steve acolytes,” Boyle says. “Suddenly, their boss is being confronted with this guy who is his match, and [Woz] says, admit to something good that happened when you weren’t in the room. And [Jobs] won’t. And [Woz] has that great line, it’s not binary–you can be decent and gifted at the same time. He doesn’t realize it yet, Steve, but that’s tearing him apart because that’s the problem: Could you sacrifice everything for achievement or is there a way you can actually treat people decently?”
There’s a feeling of acceptance, albeit of a dismal sort, when Woz realizes Jobs will never change–he’s always going to need to be the smartest guy in the room. However, the third act balances out the acidity of how Jobs is depicted in the film by tying in another form of acceptance: a reconciliation with his daughter Lisa. There’s a dreamy sequence at the end of the movie when Jobs steps on stage with Lisa watching in the wings. He’s met with thunderous applause from the audience but starts walking back toward Lisa in slow motion as the music mounts and the shot goes out of focus and fades to white.
“It’s really meant to be the fact that he’s not here anymore,” Boyle explains. “I wanted to end the film with something very personal between the two of them. There’s another version with a huge crowd but we cut a lot of that out because I wanted it to be personal. And the last image is meant to be that for her, he’s no longer around. No matter how famous he is or how much he changed the world, he’s still your dad and he’s gone.”