Steve Jobs Flops at the Box Office, Wins as a Film: Intimate Insight into the A Mind Larger Than Life


Two cartoon men look off into the distance. Underneath them are the words "Michael Fassbender is Steve Jobs"
Anikka Sophia Villegas • The Student Life

Michael Fassbender, who plays Steve Jobs in the new biopic “Steve Jobs,” looks nothing like the technology icon. And maybe that’s a good thing. 

This movie is unlike many on the long list of recent biopics. It’s not a detailed reiteration of the life and career of the man behind our iPhones, iPods and MacBooks. It’s a study of a finicky character: part corporate drama, part psychological thriller, part family drama.

The film moves through three distinct chapters, each depicting the 40 minutes before a major product launch: the Macintosh in 1984 (following the release of the acclaimed Super Bowl Macintosh advertisement), the NeXT Computer in 1988 and the iMac in 1998. The film consists of the discussions, interactions and tumultuous thoughts that Jobs has backstage with family members and colleagues—past and present—right before each subsequent presentation.

Jobs seems to have a propensity for heated, quick-paced, and at times melodic interactions with people. “I’m like Julius Caesar; I’m surrounded by enemies.” Once Steve Jobs steps onto the stage in front of the uncontrollably adoring audience—probably some of the loudest audiences ever seen at the San Francisco Symphony and Opera House—the film cuts to a brilliantly disorienting compilation video of news reels from shortly after the launch, all bad news for Jobs and Apple until the reveal of the iMac. 

The film implies that everything important to ever happen in Jobs’ life occurred within an hour of these public presentations. Before the iMac launch, he exclaims, “It’s like five minutes before a launch, everyone goes to a bar, gets drunk, and tells me how they really feel.”  But this is part of the brilliance of the film. The script dutifully reproduces the biographical side of Jobs’ life without making us sit through endless cookie-cutter exposition. 

Kate Winslet (taking on a flawed Polish accent) plays Steve Jobs’ right-hand woman, Apple marketing executive Joanna Hoffman. She serves as his voice of reason and his human clock: “Do you want to try being reasonable, you know, just try it?” Seth Rogen appears intermittently as the nerdy and loyal Steve Wozniak. He and Jobs are always at odds in this film, constantly battling over Jobs’ failure to recognize the work of Apple’s past foundational teams. They will never recieve this recognition, as he can never look backward, only forward.

One of the most interesting subplots was a string of conversations between Jobs and Apple CEO John Scully (Jeff Daniels) about Jobs’ family and adoption history. “Why do people who were adopted feel they were rejected instead of selected?” asks Scully. This is exactly how Jobs feels: rejected, tossed aside, unloved. “It’s the loss of control,” he replies. Just another layer of the gigantic onion that Fassbender creates out of the disturbed man. Scully seems to tie this family history to Jobs’ disagreeable personality and subsequent uneasiness in accepting responsibility for his daughter Lisa, whose mother was his estranged high school girlfriend Chrisann Brennan.

Jobs’ fractured relationship with his daughter forms the emotional grip of the movie. For the longest time, he denies she is his daughter. Eventually he allows her to slip into his life, but only when most convenient for him. His interactions with her, particularly when she is a young child, show his disgusting crudeness and lack of empathy. Ironic, as his aim for Apple was to create a computer that was approachable and humanistic. He admits in the end that, yes, he did in fact name the famous Lisa computer after his daughter, not just the backronym Local Integrated System Architecture he had upheld as the name for decades. Aaron Sorkin, the screenwriter, describes Lisa as the “heroine of the film,” and that is certainly how she comes across. 

Sorkin has really become a master of tech and news tycoon biopics, though he is not always entirely accurate in his portrayal of complicated characters. The film’s ingenious scope regarding Jobs’ life tackles the psychological side of a man who is lost in his thoughts and can’t seem to manage any human relationship beyond that with his marketing director best friend.

The film moves at such a blinding pace, it never lets the viewer go, never lets Jobs appear as a good man worthy of adoration. This is perhaps one of the movie’s faults; it really only shows one side of the man’s story. Fassbender truly brings the intricacies of the story, the man and the script to life. As the Washington Post’s film editor Ann Hornaday asserts, “It’s perhaps the closest thing to the thrilling immediacy of live theater that audiences can get at the multiplex right now.”

Danny Boyle’s direction ties the brilliance of the acting and script together, engaging a powerful score consisting of recognizable classical pieces, alluding to the idea Jobs proposes that he is the conductor of a massive orchestra made up of musicians wielding computers and code as their instruments. He brings a visual sparkle to the film, especially in his clever evolution in film formats for each section, from grainy 16mm film to the standard 35mm and finally to brilliant digital.

So yes, Michael Fassbender really looks nothing like the real Steve Jobs beyond his clothing, hair and classic white tennis shoes. In this and many other ways, the film avoids becoming an impersonation piece, rather an explorational masterpiece. Boy, does he convincingly take us through the evolution of a man so easy to hate to the turtleneck-wearing genius we all know and love.

Victoria Anders PO ’18 will be writing a bi-weekly film column that focuses on recently released films, buzz about movies and other related happenings.

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