Michael Fassbender as Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple Inc
Kate Winslet as Joanna Hoffman, marketing executive for Apple and Next and Jobs’ confidant in the film
Seth Rogen as Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple and creator of the Apple II
Jeff Daniels as John Sculley, CEO of Apple from 1983 to 1993
Katherine Waterston as Chrisann Brennan, Jobs’ former girlfriend and Lisa’s mother
Michael Stuhlbarg as Andy Hertzfeld, a member of the original Mac team
Makenzie Moss, Ripley Sobo, and Perla Haney-Jardine as Lisa Brennan-Jobs (at different ages), the daughter of Steve Jobs and Chrisann Brennan
Director: Danny Boyle
Screenplay: Aaron Sorkin
Film Review by ROBERT HENDERSON
This film is not about the entirety of Jobs’ life or even all of his adult life as a computer entrepreneur. It runs from the launch of the Apple Macintosh in 1984 to that of the IMac in 1998. Consequently, it misses arguably the most fruitful part of Jobs’ business life which ended with his death in 2011.
Running throughout are two themes from outside of the IT world. The first is the impact of the knowledge that he (Jobs) was adopted at birth, rejected by his first would-be adopters after a few months and then adopted again. Jobs’ inept handling of human relationships is attributed to this. The second theme is a remnant of Jobs’ rather chaotic social life which in the film he runs on the same dysfunctional basis as his work. The remnant is his one time girlfriend Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston) and their daughter Lisa whom Jobs tries not to acknowledge initially as his child, but whom he gradually accepts as his daughter.
Those are the bare bones of the film. Its distinction and energy comes from a remarkable turn by Michael Fassbender as Jobs. Fassbender has a talent for portraying obsessive characters. He did it in magnificently in Shame as a sex obsessive and he does it here with his portrayal of Jobs as an unrestrained control freak with an adolescent grade ego the size of Jupiter. He is constantly bullying and appears to have little if any moral sense. When he does behave reasonably it is invariably not because he feels guilty, but either as a result of Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet) thrusting what he is doing wrong so firmly in his face that he cannot ignore it or because someone treads on his personal territory, as when he discovers that Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg) has paid his daughter’s first semester fees after Jobs in a fit of temper told her he will not pay them. In short, Fassbender’s Jobs is like a fractious teenager without any adult brake on his bumptious behaviour.
Whether Fassbender’s Jobs is a realistic portrayal of the man is another matter. It is disputed by many who knew him and certainly this filmic Jobs is a monstrously unsympathetic character, the sort of person who continually brings gratuitous stress into the lives of those around him. Nor is he shown to be an infallible entrepreneurial wizard. Jobs got many things right with Apple, especially after his return to the company, but he also got a great deal wrong by relying on his judgement of what would appeal to the public and taking little account of what his programmers and hardware engineers told him.
His worst mistake was the original Apple Mac which he deliberately had made so that it could only take programs written for its operating system (which was incompatible with that of Microsoft), could not readily accommodate add-ons to improve functionality and, just to put the cherry on things, the AppleMac case could not be opened to repair or enhance except with special tools which were not available to Apple Mac purchasers. At the time it was launched I remember thinking that it was a crazy way of proceeding. It was an act of supreme egotism on Job’s part because he wanted the system to be entirely self-contained, that is to be a system he envisaged and controlled. With Jobs in this characterisation it was always his way or the highway.
The Wozniak character expresses his frustration at Jobs’ lack of technical knowhow most vividly when he says “What do you do? You don’t write code. You’re not an engineer. You’re not a designer. You can’t put a hammer to a nail. I built the circuit board. The graphical interface was stolen from Xerox Park, Jeff Raskin was the leader of the Mac team before you threw him off his own project. Someone else designed the box. So how come ten times in a day I read that Steve Jobs is a genius? What do you do?”
Jobs’ reply is a facile “I play the orchestra, and you’re a good musician. You sit right there and you’re the best in your row.” Fine if the tune Jobs is conducting is a hit with the public but quite often it was not.
This scene is one of the best. The problem is that the real Wozniak denies ever confronting Jobs so directly: “Anybody who knows me will tell you I just don’t say negative things to people, and could not have said them, and didn’t.”
There are very strong acting performances across the board. Steve Jobs is splendidly cast and apart from Fassbender, there is a dominant turn by Kate Winslet (does she ever give a poor performance?) as Jobs’ right hand woman and confidant while Seth Rogen as Steve Wozniak, Jeff Daniels as John Sculley, Michael Stuhlbarg as Andy Hertzfeld, a member of the original Mac team, are all convincing. Katherine Waterston as Chrisann Brennan is Jobs’ former girlfriend and Lisa’s mother is by turns convincing as a single mother justifiably angry at Jobs’ failure to acknowledge his daughter denied and a pathetic inadequate.
The screenplay is by Aaron Sorkin who wrote the screenplay for the Social Network. This is not anything like as good as the Social Network, however, which retained its taut energy and constantly evolving storyline throughout, whereas Steve Jobs is much more dependent on Fassbender’s bravura scenes which begin to have a certain sameness towards the latter stages of the film. Nonetheless Steve Jobs has much of the Social Network’s quick wittedness in its dialogue and the relationship between Fassbender and Winslet is constantly sparky.
This film is not as good as it might have been but it will not bore you.
ROBERT HENDERSON is QR’s film critic