Steve Jobs’ Overvalued Celebrity

We have a cultural obsession with Steve Jobs. We quote Jobs like we do philosophers or poets. And now, we have another movie about him. This newest biopic, uniquely structured and well written, tackles Jobs’s inflated celebrity and corrosive personality, only to prop it all back up at the end. Admittedly, deeper commentary on celebrity is a peculiar issue for a biopic. After all, it’s a movie that hopes to sell as many tickets as possible by exposing us even more intimately to Jobs—an approach which only feeds his already mammoth celebrity. But by showing us a broken, albeit brilliant, Jobs, Danny Boyle takes us well past idolatry.

The film approaches the fall and rise of Jobs (Michael Fassbender) in three acts. Each act follows a surely-dramatized account of Jobs’s three big product launches–the Macintosh, NeXT, and the iMac–and each is complete with enough tension to be a play in its own right. The visuals are generally minimalist, with the exception of a few near-surrealist flashback sequences. Boyle would rather let Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay maneuver unimpeded by a heavy visual fingerprint. That’s not to say that Boyle ignores his duty to create a visual piece. Boyle frames sharply and has an extremely mobile camera, which can be dizzying at times, especially in the beginning. Ultimately, this light, nimble touch has an unexpected payoff; Jobs’s mania and alpha status present themselves more through the camera’s constant motion and Fassbender’s intimidating screen presence than through the quick dialogue.

And the dialogue, typical with Sorkin (appropriately, The Social Network), is fast and brainy. Much faster and brainier than any average conversation, but Sorkin avoids pretension. The predicaments seem plausible; the character’s reactions, realistic. Jobs in particular has some smart lines, and his incredible arrogance makes anything he says that might be considered pompous or showy come off as perfectly natural. Fassbender has the poignant range Sorkin’s Jobs requires. He can be pompous and airy, or hilariously dry and vulgar.

Really, Fassbender and Michael Stuhlbarg, as Andy Hertzfeld (former Apple Chief Architect), give spectacular performances. I like Jeff Daniels as John Sculley (former Apple CEO), too. He’s pedestrian to start, but comes on strong in acts two and three, hitting pride, anger, and reconciliation as Sculley faces up to the bulldozer that is Jobs. Fassbender, though, doesn’t waste any time getting into the groove. He has the swagger, quickness, and irreverence needed for the estranged genius. Unable to keep still or shut up, he demands your attention. And yet, Stuhlbarg (A Serious Man, Men In Black III), has the best—or at least most memorable—performance of this cultural interest piece. He’s timid and nervous, clearly dominated by Jobs’s personae, but defiant in his own way. Hertzfeld is a good person, a much better person than Jobs, and Stuhlbarg is quietly content in that knowledge.

It’s not too hard to be a better person than Jobs (the character—I never met the man). Until the last ten minutes, he is almost insufferable: mechanically single-minded, self-centered, delusional about his own grandeur (he likes to compare himself to Bob Dylan), and stubborn. As Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen) puts it in the film, and I’m paraphrasing here, Jobs doesn’t do anything; he doesn’t code, design, or engineer. Despite this, every other character fights for his attention and recognition, even if they won’t admit it. So why is Jobs the type of man they want to please? Can they sense his greatness, even if they’re not sure why he’s great?

Though Boyle takes the air out of these important questions with his sappy (painfully sappy) ending, we can still ask them. Steve Jobs had serious business and cultural foresight, but does that warrant this kind fascination? Is his growing fame a product of his untimely passing? Maybe I don’t understand Apple and Jobs’s impact on the world because most of my life has been in the Apple-world. But I don’t think the movie quite understands it either. For now, the best explanation this movie offers is that Jobs is an outlandish cult-of-personality and mesmerizing to watch.

Grade: B+. It was a big undertaking, and it was mostly well executed. If I’d left ten minutes early, it probably would’ve gotten an A.