Aaron Sorkin has described himself as "just this side of luddite." He's made it clear that he can't stand the internet, which he feels is full of people who talk and talk and don't listen to each other, not unlike those in an Aaron Sorkin screenplay.
You'd think that being indifferent-to-hostile toward technology would make someone a pretty crummy candidate to write movies about two of the tech world's most influential figures. But instead The Social Network and Steve Jobs bring out The West Wing creator's best and most affectingly ambivalent self, one interested in challenging the self-mythologizing to which the industry is prone rather than bolstering it up.
Sorkin's long-held faith in the abilities of great men to lead humanity forward is transmuted by his lack of affinity for technology into something with more perspective and plangency. Rather than just celebrate their subjects's achievements, these movies use them to springboard into pointed explorations of modern masculinity.
These are stories about brilliant jerks.
So The Social Network made Mark Zuckerberg and the creation of Facebook into a story about a guy who, after being dumped, tries not to win the girl back or become a nicer person, but to make himself into someone who's too big a deal to ever be hurt again.
And Steve Jobs portrays its title character as a guy so determined to think only of the big picture that when his ex (Katherine Waterston) asks if he's OK with how little money he's paying her in child support, he responds by noting that Apple does donate computers to schools in underprivileged areas. Anyone who complained about factual fudging in The Social Network will find Steve Jobs even more of an irritant in how it funnels details of the Apple co-founder's life through the run-up to three project launches, with Jobs' friends and frenemies and family and collaborators traipsing improbably by backstage.
Those people can go watch Ashton Kutcher in Jobs or Noah Wyle in Pirates of Silicon Valley or Alex Gibney's recent warts-and-all doc Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine, all of which run through Jobs' milestones in a more traditional if not always sunnier fashion. But none of those are nearly as good a movie as Steve Jobs, which stars Michael Fassbender as the title character, and which is directed sturdily by Danny Boyle from a screenplay by Sorkin that sets out to dazzle with the keenness of its dialogue.
It's a movie that feels theatrical in its constrained locales and its effervescent talkiness. Its first part takes place in 1984, right before the launch of the Macintosh. Its second is in 1988, as Jobs is about to unveil the NeXT computer. And its third is in 1998, at the introduction of the iMac. The film wanders from the stage to the green room to the parking garage on the roof, but leaves the buildings only in flashbacks. It's like Birdman, except its main character is able to unfurl his fervor and let them settle over his following like a fresh sheet.
Isn't that what being a visionary means — to be able to sell people on your ideas before they're ever made solid? There's always a screaming crowd waiting in Steve Jobs, long before its main character ever has a home run. The Macintosh underperforms in its earliest incarnation, and the NeXT isn't a hit either, but fans do the wave and stomp their feet like they're awaiting a rock star each time. Jobs, during one of his three encounters with Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), counters his collaborator and then former collaborator's claim that Jobs has never been good at any of the actual stuff of building a computer by saying that he's the conductor, not a musician.
It's condescending as fuck, telling the co-founder of your company that he's the equivalent of a first violin in your orchestra, but it speaks to the unapologetic grandeur of Jobs' ambition — why would he be concerned with expansion cards when he cares about user experience? Why would he want to make his computers easier to customize for hobbyists when he believes he knows the best way to make them welcoming for the masses? He wants nothing less than to insert his devices into everyday life — and, obviously, he succeeds, though for decades before that point, Apple maintained only a toehold on the market.
Steve Jobs posits that the qualities that make its subject a genius on a large scale are ones that make him so difficult and exacting in his personal and professional relationships, but it also suggests that Jobs cultivates this idea and uses it to shield himself. He tells employee and then former employee Andy Hertzfeld (a schlubbed-up Michael Stuhlbarg) that he doesn't care if people like him, but it's not true on multiple levels. He is furious about not being on the cover of Time. The three events he prepares for are about offering himself up to the audience to be worshipped, especially since it's only during the third one that technology has really come close to catching up with his ideas.
And Jobs likes other people, even if he treats them like shit. It would be nice if two of the three main women were more than two of Sorkin's standard female character types — the shrill mess (Waterston) and the loyal (self-described!) work wife (Kate Winslet, initially unrecognizable in dreadful '80s wear as Joanna Hoffman). But the characters who stop by to pay their respects and pick fights during Jobs' rehearsals are all really just mirrors for different aspects of his personality — most obviously Jeff Daniels as Apple CEO and then former Apple CEO John Sculley, who, in one of the most awkward lines in a sea of good ones, asks Jobs how he feels about being adopted right before he goes onstage.
Fassbender tenses up his voice and tones down his wolfishness for the role (though there's a moment where he slips into a toothy grin that feels like a shock), but the best thing he brings to the character is a sense of affected dispassion. Jobs sometimes genuinely doesn't care about the feelings of the person he's talking to or making demands of, but other times shifts his attention as a power move, a means of deflection.
It's his main ammunition in his fractious relationship with his daughter Lisa (played by Makenzie Moss as a 5-year-old, Ripley Sobo as a 9-year-old, and Perla Haney-Jardine as a college-bound teenager), who Jobs initially insisted was not his in the ultimate denial of attention. Later in the movie, he's aghast that she took him at face value when, in a huff, he told her he wouldn't pay for her Harvard tuition — though from everything we've seen of their relationship, it wouldn't seem out of the realm of possibility.
The moment in which Jobs confesses to Lisa the truth about the name of an early project feels like a punch to the gut because of the depth of unrealized emotion it reveals. He can't even explain why his first urge was to repudiate his daughter, and the fact that the movie doesn't try to solve this for him is one of the reasons it's so satisfying, despite its flashy, self-conscious schematism. By the third act of the film, Jobs has carved himself down into the iconic figure we all know, with his black turtleneck, rimless glasses, and enticingly candy-colored transparent desktops. He's going to finally be proven right, like so many Sorkin heroes, but there's an ache to his success — not because of the things he gave up to get it, but because he's finally figured out that he didn't have to.