Icon of what?
Four years after his death, Steve Jobs’ flawed genius defies categorization. A new Hollywood biopic, simply named after the man, provides a fictionalized yet revealing glimpse of the human being behind Apple’s iconic products. A recent documentary has a harder critical edge.
Universal Pictures’ new movie is almost stage-worthy in its use of three high-profile product launches as acts in the Jobs saga. The debut of the Macintosh computer in 1984 is the first, followed by Jobs’ performances in exile at NeXT Computer in 1988 and back at Apple with the iMac in 1998. The film doesn’t even get to the iPod and the wildly successful iPhone. Director Danny Boyle’s techniques are cleverly varied to reflect the eras.
Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, meanwhile, has taken big liberties in adapting Walter Isaacson’s biography of Jobs. The writer of “The Social Network” and most of “The West Wing” is justified in homing in on his subject’s talent for whipping up an audience. But building the whole story around Jobs’ daughter, Lisa Brennan-Jobs, whose paternity he initially denied before the two eventually developed an erratic relationship, stretches the reality.
That said, the whole package achieves what Isaacson’s book largely didn’t, which is to offer what seems a real insight into Jobs the man, in all his parts: determined, a perfectionist, charming on demand, often callous, charismatic, sometimes delusional, yet not entirely without feelings or empathy.
Michael Fassbender captures Jobs’ bearing and holds attention, though the actor’s lack of resemblance to the man whose face remains fresh in memory complicates the task. Seth Rogen is surprisingly credible as a hurt and disappointed Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple. And Sorkin creates a gripping double act between Fassbender and Kate Winslet, who plays a fictionally omnipresent and oddly accented version of Joanna Hoffman, a Jobs sidekick at Macintosh and NeXT.
Writing in the Verge, Kwame Opam cheekily suggests the film’s structure allows Sorkin to “do what he does best: write electric dialogue for actors walking up and down hallways.” Other reviewers have talked of possible Oscar-worthy performances. It’s all wrapped up in Hollywood gloss.
Another recently released take on one of the most successful businessmen of his generation has a very different feel. “Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine,” a documentary from Magnolia Pictures directed by Alex Gibney, is a warts-and-all – maybe mostly warts – examination of the conflict between the Jobsian effort to market Apple’s products as cool, human and, at least early on, anti-establishment, and the individual and corporate enrichment that followed.
The documentary is worth watching for the archive footage alone. It is also mostly a genuine attempt to understand how Jobs managed to attract people like moths to his flame while burning many of them and, on a larger scale, to boost Apple’s sales and popularity even as it became a giant corporation. Even after recent stock market softness, the company is worth more than $600 billion, making it easily the most valuable enterprise in the world.
Where Gibney, the director, may oversimplify things is to suggest, as he did in a publicity interview, that Jobs is often viewed as entirely virtuous because of his success, his wealth and the enthusiasm engendered by his products – and that he needs taking down a peg or two.
Gibney’s film is more nuanced than that, of course. He recognizes that giving leeway to exceptional people like Jobs, and companies like Apple, is only human and justifiable, up to a point. “But his legendary cruelty was not essential to what he accomplished,” the director said in the interview. “It became something that everyone was willing to overlook, because his company made such beautiful products, which made shareholders so much money.”
What both films underline alongside his extreme personality is that Jobs, while far from a tech geek, was a visionary, a passionate storyteller and a great showman. Such people tend to provoke strong, not necessarily rational, reactions.
Reports suggest some of those who were closest to Jobs don’t like Hollywood’s new movie much. They may, however, have their own fictions to maintain. For all the film’s artistic license, it achieves in a different way what Gibney does in his documentary: It allows a complex, conflicted man to emerge from the myth.