Steve Jobs opens less than an hour before the Macintosh’s 1984 product launch, and there’s a risk the state-of-the-art personal computer won’t be able to say “Hello.” The entire launch hinges upon this delivery, our fictional Steve Jobs insists; without a friendly, comforting “Hello” to welcome the audience, nobody will buy the Mac. Yet despite the inventor’s pompous assertions that the Mac’s alluring design—a closed-system computer with minimal memory and software—would sell itself, even with the “Hello,” the product grossly undershot sales projections. Consumers drifted away from Jobs’s carefully crafted model for the more functional open systems competitors like Windows sold.
This is the first, tragic act of Steve Jobs, as scripted by Aaron Sorkin—a man who’s never met an aphorism he didn’t store in his Rolodex. Sorkin has given voice to countless cantankerous, single-minded, emotionally crippled men over the years. Taking on Apple’s former CEO, firmly in his wheelhouse, seems a bit on-the-nose.
Sorkin’s movie—and that feels like an honest assessment, even with director Danny Boyle at the helm—talks fast and furious, split into three acts that are each focused on a Jobs product launch: 1984’s Macintosh, 1988’s black cube NeXT Computer, and the triumphant 1998 launch of the iMac. His writing has a surface sheen Jobs may have admired. Sorkin’s willing theatricality requires a suspension of reality—you’ll either buy the repeated parade of Jobs’s closest circle prior to each launch, or you won’t. The conceit to meet Jobs at age 29, prepared to revolutionize the world, butts up against a more jaded Jobs five years later, fired from Apple, demoing a beautiful, ineffective device that doesn’t even have an operating system!
I wager Sorkin and Boyle intended Steve to be an unsolvable puzzle. He’s calculating, magnanimous, overbearing, driven by ego; Jobs insists his products will eclipse Bill Gates’s, one of many ways the movie wink-winks at Apple’s eventual near-global domination. But how much can we learn about a man when he’s applying his stage makeup, ready to make his entrance to the cheering masses? Of course there’s hubris, on these of all days. Of course he’s rattled. Why is everyone bugging him? Doesn’t he get a bathroom break?
Despite the herculean size of the role, the character doesn’t fully emerge. His unpleasantness grossly outweighs whatever the movie posits his achievements to be. If we’re impressed by the iMac, it’s because we used it in real life. The movie doesn’t have the space to show the man using, even demoing, his creation. We don’t even hear “Hello.” Three times, we watch the curtain fall right as Henry Higgins takes Eliza Doolittle to the ball.
“It’s the Real Thing”
Michael Fassbender’s casting amplifies this chilly look at Jobs. He has the charisma and stamina to carry the movie. In each era, we see him spar with Steve Wozniak (co-founder of Apple), John Sculley (CEO of Apple until he’s ousted), and especially his right-hand woman Joanna Newsom, played by the excellent Kate Winslet at her most charmingly combative. Fassbender is, no surprise, technically superb. He finds distinct body language and mannerisms for each era: tense and insolent in 1984, more self-aware by 1988, almost weary and broken-down in 1998 just as his life-changing iMac awaits.
He’s also inscrutable as an actor, in roles from Jane Eyre to Shame, like he’s keeping part of himself private, unavailable for view. This fits Sorkin’s Jobs perfectly, but also keeps us distant. Sorkin’s reliance on snappy punchlines, furthermore, makes this Jobs instantly quotable but difficult to parse, like he’s speaking in code.
The three-act structure gives the genius a redemption story. His pride is so monumental in 1984 that Jobs (and this is true to life) won’t even acknowledge Lisa is his daughter; and on-screen, at least, he forces her to grovel at each product launch, begging for more parental support. I’m glad Sorkin and Boyle didn’t gloss over this in 1984—it’s seemingly the hook that got the script started—but by the third act, I was tired of Lisa. Without seeing the years in-between, catharsis is hard to achieve. One nice moment is Jobs telling Lisa he’ll invent her a device to hold a thousand songs. Another wink-wink, but this time, it’s an honest character moment. This Steve Jobs can only communicate through his products, even to his daughter. He’s the nerd Don Draper, and he’s buying the whole world a Coke.