It’s the return of movie showdown and today it is the battle of the Steve Jobs – Steve Jobs vs. Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine.
Whatever your thoughts on Steve Jobs, it’s hard not to argue that he was a complex and complicated man. There were two sides of his personality – the public face and the behind closed doors.
Some viewed him as a tyrant, a bully and a self-determined control freak. Yet his influence and guidance at Apple changed the way we look at technological gadgets. Our devices are no longer scary or primitive. With the advancements of technology, our devices are personal. They help us in whatever way we need it. They can fuel our creativity or even at its most basic level, to simply make our lives easier. For someone who at one point in their life couldn’t see the appeal with Apple, my desk today now looks like an Apple store display (minus the genius bar and a glass exterior building). Like a lot of us in this world, we’re part of the Apple ecosystem.
In 2015 two films came out depicting the life of Steve Jobs. Which film does a better job at conveying his complex nature?
It’s Fassbender vs. Gibney.
Who will win? Let’s get ready to rumble!
“Musicians play their instruments. I play the orchestra.” – Steve Jobs (Steve Jobs)
Steve Jobs has all the hallmarks of a perfect movie. It has a great director in Danny Boyle. The script was written by Aaron Sorkin. It has a brilliant cast with Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet and Jeff Daniels leading the way. The acting is superb and will keep you invested.
So why did I feel unsatisfied and underwhelmed?
The film is separated into three acts, operating like a stage play. It’s an intense examination, exploring behind the scenes of an Apple/NeXt computer launch in which Steve Jobs was involved in. If you’re an Aaron Sorkin fan then you’ll be happy to know that his dialogue is meticulously sharp. Michael Fassbender as Steve Jobs delivers one epic monologue after another whilst doing the classic Sorkin ‘walk and talk’ when Jobs has to interact with a problem or a situation. In each hectic scene we see Jobs trying to get ready for the launch, talking about the limitations of the product and how he’s going to sell it, whilst battling issues with the Apple board, Steve Wozniak and his complex relationship with his ex-girlfriend and daughter.
That in essence is my main problem with Steve Jobs.
If you’re looking for a film that really delves into his personality by expressing his inspirations, his motivations or simple justifications on why he acted like a tyrannical perfectionist, then I can’t recommend this film for you. For two hours and two minutes, I absolutely learnt nothing about the man other than the possibility that he could be the worst father in the world. To go a step further, it’s two hours and two minutes of Steve Jobs being angry, verbally abusive and confrontational and you suddenly find yourself being sucked into a gruelling cinematic experience.
As an opening act, it’s fine to see him in that light because Steve Jobs wasn’t a saint. But when the second and third act does exactly the same where “he’s right, everybody’s wrong and you’re going to fix what’s wrong”, it feels very repetitive, offering nothing new. For a biopic that’s insane.
It doesn’t help that each of the acts are set behind the scenes at an Apple/NeXt event. Immediately, because of the pattern (eat, sleep, angry Steve Jobs, repeat), it feels restrictive and contrived, forcing us to believe that all that drama happened minutes before each launch. Because of the closed off nature (just like an apple device), it doesn’t allow much freedom to explore other avenues of the story. In what is supposed to feel like an in-depth look at the man comes off as a mere snapshot or hollow glimpse at his life. There’s nothing positive to say about his personality because it’s just one side that’s emitted the whole way through. Steve Jobs came across as someone who was devoid of humanity.
Whether that was the entire point or not, considering that the script was written by Aaron Sorkin, the film does come across as pointless…and that surprises me. In contrast to The Social Network, Sorkin makes a balanced yet dramatised account of Mark Zuckerberg’s life in the creation of Facebook. It wasn’t pretty – Zuckerberg’s attitude is abrasive and territorial especially towards his best friend who was suing him. But at least the film showed moments of sympathy because it became more than just about the technology and “who created what”. It was ultimately about friendship and betrayal. The same style formula is repeated for Steve Jobs but unfortunately it breezes passed those key incidents like a hurricane sweeping through a town. What this film needed was to be in the eye of the storm, slow down and settle on a moment.
The film also feels like a big massive tease. Imagine watching Home Alone. For 1 hour and 43 minutes you watch the McCallister family getting ready for their Christmas holiday and the final scene of the movie is when they’ve realised Kevin was left at home. That’s how I felt about Steve Jobs – we get teased of the build up of the events but we don’t get to see it. Fassbender as Jobs walks on stage and the movie immediately jumps to another time point to start the repetition all over again. The argument might be “well you can always view the events on YouTube” and yes that’s true. But for a dramatised biopic to really work, you need to see all aspects of someone’s personality. To see the public face of Steve Jobs might actually provide some context and balance on why so many identified with the visionary and entrepreneurial side of him. Like Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen) suggests, Steve Jobs didn’t write code and he’s not a designer – what does he do? The thing that he does, the ability to communicate about products as a necessity that will have a positive impact in our lives, we never see on the screen.
Besides the environmental nature of the film, Steve Jobs also examines the relationship of his daughter and his ex. Again, each family drama takes place behind the scenes, moments before the event. Once again, appropriate in the first act but quickly becomes unbelievable in the second and third act because no matter what they’re talking about, the conversation always ends with the subject of money being transferred into an account. There must have been something more to this relationship other than money but yet that’s what the relationship has been reduced to. Did they love each other at one point? The film doesn’t elaborate. The ending itself just sums up how manufactured and contrived the whole scenario was – a picture drawn on a Macintosh does not make everything better.
Steve Jobs feels like a missed opportunity. Fassbender does a brilliant job, but it’s Kate Winslet as Joanna Hoffman that steals the show. Steve Jobs may have come across as difficult but at least she provided the heart and some common sense, getting Steve to come back to reality. If it wasn’t for that performance, the film would have been empty.
“Steve came in and said in typical Steve Jobs fashion, ‘I’m not going to leave until you hire me’. And I really appreciated his intensity. He had one speed – full on.” – Nolan Bushnell, Co-Founder of Atari (Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine)
From the director of Taxi to the Darkside, Alex Gibney’s unauthorised documentary examines the history of Steve Jobs from his early beginnings until his death in 2011.
On the surface it may feel like a very negative documentary but at least it accomplishes one thing that Steve Jobs failed to do – information and context.
Gibney questions the outpouring of grief for someone who wasn’t a Gandhi or a Martin Luther King figure. He was a man who sold you products. I don’t believe this questioning was a personal attack on Steve Jobs but the documentary tries to understand that question as to why people viewed him in that way, especially when his actions were questionable.
The documentary highlights the admiration for Steve Jobs, showcasing his self driven determination and vision. Jobs saw himself as a dreamer, an aspect which we all can identify with. He loved Bob Dylan because he was a storyteller and would often quote him or be inspired by him. He was well versed in literature, a paradigm-shifter where he felt he could influence and change the world. His frequent trips to Japan or seeking enlightenment from Zen Buddhists helped him to find peace, calm and simplicity. When Apple was founded, he became the face of the company, a renegade alternative to the monolithic logos and practices of IBM, the leaders of computing during that time. It was a ‘David vs. Goliath’ battle, “sticking it to the man” and going against the conformist grain where possible in providing something different for the customer. The product can be an extension of a person rather than being a slave to it – hence the brilliant 1984 Apple advert displaying a Orwellian future. Ironically the advert doesn’t show you the product but it’s the idea of breaking free from the perception of what a computer was meant to do and be.
But there’s another side of his personality. Being driven can certainly hurt the people around you and Jobs was willing to risk that no matter what the cost. Examples include:
- Wozniak being short-changed for something he created when he worked with Jobs at Atari.
- The paternity case after he fathered a child and later denied her financial responsibility despite Apple making a fortune.
- The Apple/Gizmodo case where the new iPhone was leaked online which lead to threats and a journalist’s house being searched.
- The treatment of Apple employees. They were either placed in three categories (praise them, vilify them or ignore them) or when they tried to leave the company, they were banned from joining their rivals.
- The exploitation of labour in China.
The point of the documentary is very simple. Gibney understands and clearly points out the genius of Steve Jobs. He understands the skills he had and his goals of wanting to change the human condition via technological innovation. But it’s also a documentary that’s not afraid to look at the ugly side, providing the necessary balance, examination and perspective. You can’t deny what’s presented because most of the archival footage uses the man himself in his own words. His former friends, colleagues and ex-girlfriend provide the additional information about his psyche. In what started as a ‘David vs. Goliath’ battle of a man who wanted to change the natural order, when Apple became Goliath, it was Jobs protecting his throne with the amount of power, control and money he possessed.
Whether you’re familiar with his story or not, Steve Jobs was a complex, calculating and contradicting individual and the documentary reflects that in an educating way.
For a man who wanted to change the world, in many respects he accomplished that and the legacy is there to be seen. Like I said in my introduction, I only have to look at my desk! How we interact with technology nowadays is done with the simplistic touch of an app button or a swipe of a finger. But as an individual, his lack of empathy towards people feels like it was lost to him. He lived in a self-obsessed bubble whilst pushing others to an uncomfortable limit. Did it stemmed from his adoption, creating a better version of himself to feel like he was destined for something greater in life? Gibney certainly makes an argumentative case.
The documentary tries to separate Steve Jobs the innovator/marketer and our personal connection with our devices and Steve Jobs the man. Both have their faults but Gibney certainly provides information and understanding for you to ultimately judge what his legacy should be.
And the winner is…
Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine