Prior to seeing Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs at Telluride, I similarly felt indifferent to the life of Apple’s CEO. I knew the vague elements, but other than benefitting from the technology, I had no need to look further. After the electrifying experience of Boyle’s movie, I was intrigued enough to ask two questions: why were there so many high-profile Steve Jobs projects, and what made each of them different?
In the months since Telluride, I have seen Boyle’s movie one more time, watched the two other Steve Jobs movies, and even tackled Walter Isaacson’s official biography, a tome that’s over 500 pages. I’ve spent more time on Steve Jobs than I ever care to do again. It is now time to reflect on each individually, and how the four unique iterations intersect.
Steve Jobs (2015) – The Sorkin/Boyle Extravaganza
An officially recognized adaptation of Walter Isaacson’s book would indicate it is approved, but Tim Cook criticized it for being ‘opportunistic.’ You can read my full review here. There are certainly criticisms to be had of this unconventional biography, yet when all is said and done it was this movie that inspired me to dive into the rest of these versions. I am not sure the same would be true of any of the others. There is something so energized about the whole endeavor; Sorkin takes the complexities of Jobs and distills it into three 40-minute sequences. More specifically, each sequence features a confrontation between Jobs and a few of the important people in his life.
After reading Isaacson’s book, I saw the movie again and noticed the subtle moments taken from the book sprinkled throughout the movie. Jobs mocks Woz for looking at food in the vending machine. He washes his feet in the toilet. Little details in dialogue and character moments are taken from the book that pass by viewers who don’t know to look for it, displaying how well thought-out every detail is here. Because of the condensed timeline, this version takes the most artistic liberties. For example, Scully and Jobs never talked again after 1985, yet here they are shown meeting 3 times: hypothetical conversations to reflect their feelings in the years gone by.
Similar to The Social Network, I believe that this is more an attempt to capture essence and mood rather than an exact replication of the reality. Take the casting for example- Fassbender barely looks like Jobs, nor does he ever imitate him, but somehow he becomes him simply by bringing the intensity and mood of the character. Unfortunately, Steve Jobs was not successful commercially and, therefore, may miss out on being widely viewed. For the experience of watching these talented artists perform at the top of their abilities, I encourage everyone to find a way to check it out.
Steve Jobs (2011) – Walter Isaacson’s Definitive Biography
Despite its length, the stories within this massive book are compelling enough to always want to read another chapter. A book has the luxury of not having to pick and choose nearly as much as a two-hour movie. Therefore, there is an all-encompassing feeling in Isaacson’s book. Here we not only get the same story that we see in the other books, but we also hear about his work at Pixar, his relationships at home, his parents and sister, and in the final section we get to learn about each and every product’s creation in the post-iPod era. This is compelling because the history and transformation of Apple is something that affected consumers everywhere.
Despite being compelling, I don’t know how many people actually sat down and read this book despite its bestseller status because it was so darn long. Even though I felt like I flew through it, it still took me a month to finish.
The biggest message Jobs attempted to instill in his work was the intersection of art and technology. Computers prior to Apple did not have an emphasis on design, or more importantly, user experience. This hallmark set Jobs apart and helped Apple to evolve to where it is today.
Ultimately, the book is the most definitive of the adaptations due to its vast scope. Reading the book in the context of all these other pieces helped me come to terms with the complexity of human beings in general. The jury is out on whether he was a genius or not, and there is too much contradiction to know if he was a man of his values. Regardless, Isaacson’s book allows you to see enough of Jobs that you can decipher an opinion for yourself more than any individual film adaptation.
Steve Jobs: Man in the Machine (2015) – Alex Gibney Documentary
There is far more that makes this entry unique other than it being a documentary. It is the only film that reaches into the 21st Century while the others end when he returns to Apple. Steve Jobs: Man in the Machine is the only one to focus on his legacy, including footage of how much his death moved people worldwide.
Gibney is the most critical of any of the Jobs interpretations. Fortunately, none of the interpretations sugarcoat Jobs or attempt to hide his not-so-positive behavioral traits. It’s hard to ignore the irony that despite being so frustrated with being abandoned by his birth parents, he attempted to do the same thing with his own daughter. At times, Gibney’s documentary seems intent on simply uncovering all of Steve Jobs’ negative, beginning with ripping off his best friend Steve ‘Woz’ Wozniak and ending with his maniacal approach toward finding a missing iPhone prototype in 2011. It definitely doesn’t help that all of the interviews seem to be people that he wronged in his lifetime, notably the mother of his estranged daughter.
Ultimately, the documentary’s biggest revelation is the irony that despite being a man who always proudly stood against the system, in the end, he became the system. As CEO of Apple, he was wealthy beyond imagination and yet made no attempt to be philanthropic. He proudly touted having a $1 salary, yet was involved in back-end stocks in a blatant attempt to make himself and other head honchos at Apple much richer. These are mentioned in Isaacson’s biography but not with the level of punch that Gibney gives them here. Again, we see the clunkiness in his quick life transition as discussed above. Despite his reputation as a tech god, we see in this film a lot of the corporate side of Jobs that isn’t pretty at all, nor does it align with the neat story of his earlier life. One thing missing from all of the interpretations is how Jobs transformed from being a rebellious young start-up creator to the mega-powerful CEO that he became (with both good and bad). None of the movies or the book smoothly transfer from these two distinct personas we saw in Jobs. Indeed, it is my belief that this was a rapid transition: upon retaking the position of Apple’s CEO in the late 90s, he burnt himself out trying to put everything in place (and was still CEO of Pixar for the beginning years), and this caused him to age, both in looks and attitude, drastically. None of these adaptations seem to recognize how distinctly different Jobs was in these stages: I would be interested to see a piece that dissects this transition.
From a crafts perspective, Gibney’s documentary is master-class non-fiction filmmaking, pulling out all the best tricks in the book and much more. It’s extremely persuasive and undoubtedly has impact.
The message is less about Steve Jobs and more a cautionary tale of what he created. The products we use daily have had a profound impact on the way society interacts, in many ways for the worse. Gibney goes as far as to compare our constant use of the iPhone to Frodo and the Ring. There’s a profound notion that perhaps Steve Jobs couldn’t interact the way most humans could, so he invented a new way to do so with technology. While every other adaptation of Steve Jobs ends on a positive, sometimes saccharine note, this one is a reality check that at the end of the day, Apple today is a mega corporation exactly like the ones Jobs initially hated. It’s easy to romanticize the legacy and products, but always remember to keep this in mind when viewing these stories.
Jobs (2013) The Straight Shooting Ashton Kutcher Biopic
Perhaps one fascinating observation of watching three movies is that each one chooses a different set of supporting characters to be the essential players. Of course, Woz is always one of the choices. But in this film, the most prominent supporting role is in early Apple investor Mark Markkula, a figure who barely appears in Boyle’s movie! Similarly, Steve’s daughter Lisa Brennan-Jobs is the focal point of Boyle’s film yet now reduced to a tiny supporting role. Joanna Hoffman makes no appearance here but is essential to Boyle’s film (played by Kate Winslet). The list goes on. We see that because of the complexity of the character, it is only possible to choose a few of his interactions needed to tell his story. Each one produces a different side of the coin: imagine choosing three or four people in your life to star in your life’s movie, then choosing a different set for another movie! In the case of the documentary, this makes it easy to be biased as all of the interviews were people who had primarily negative interactions with Jobs.
The primary criticism this film receives in comparison to the others is that it is too conventional. It plays like many biopics before it as a “greatest hits” story going from one big moment after the other, although still is primarily the same story arc ending in his return to Apple. What’s interesting is how viewers have wisened up to this conventional approach, and now prefer for biographies to take an unconventional route, most often when it comes to someone’s life story who we’re all familiar with.
Being conventional isn’t the only issue causing the film to feel mediocre. Many ideas or sequences are left unfinished. A conflict of Jobs lying to Woz about how much money they earned is established early on but never gets a payoff. In fact, their relationship never has a proper conclusion. An opening scene of Jobs unveiling the iPod introduces the film as a flashback: because we never return to Jobs this late in his life, it feels extremely tacked on and a mere excuse to show Kutcher dressed as the Jobs most of us knew. The film’s ending catches the viewer off guard because it doesn’t feel like the movie has been building to it. This feels like a situation where the focus was clearly on capturing these specific moments of Jobs instead of the overall picture.
Ashton Kutcher seemed like an odd choice for Steve Jobs, yet bears a striking resemblance at times. What Kutcher adds that none of the others express is Jobs’ famous stare, which is perfectly displayed throughout the movie. However, unlike Fassbender, he never seems like a man after control, and his moments of anger don’t have the same sincerity that Fassbender’s do. Admittedly I can’t judge the film as a viewer would without having read the book: despite not being an official adaptation, it takes out so much from the book that you wonder if they did any other type of research in writing the screenplay. Like Boyle’s Jobs, this one also attempts to layer in bits and pieces of Job’s life into the dialogue to cram in as much as possible. In Sorkin’s screenplay, they are subtle, here they’re a little more on the nose. There are lines of dialogue such as “What should we name our company?” Often times real stories with mediocre movies made about them are left as such. Perhaps all the Steve Jobs stories prove that even if the first attempt isn’t fantastic, there still may be room to try again.
Wrapping them all together
What is it that is so compelling about Steve Jobs? There is a clear narrative arc in his life that makes him perfect fodder for writers. Sorkin’s screenplay and Boyle’s stylistic choices make no attempt to hide the 3-act structure: a character who begins to rise to the top, is pushed all the way to the bottom, and then climbs to even higher heights than ever before. Even Isaacson addresses this in his book on page 219: “What prepared him [Jobs] for the great success he would have in Act III was not his ouster from his Act I at Apple but his brilliant failures in Act II.”
His story is appealing to businessmen, who can salivate at how he redefined so many types of business practice and achieved billion-dollar success. Artists can relish in his love for calligraphy and product design. Actors, as we’ve seen, can tackle just how brutal of a guy he was and his intense moments of conflict with everyone in his life. Tech geeks need no explanation. Jobs frequently references his love of the intersection of art and technology. Perhaps the sense that there is something for everyone intersecting within Jobs life has spawned so many imaginings.
Yet if I have taken away anything from this case study, it is that so often in the media we try to distill the lives of famous human beings into easily understood stories, as if 56 years of someone’s life can be understood in 2 hours. Steve Jobs can be viewed as a monster but also as a tortured soul and a genius. What I’ve found is that in looking at how many times I’ve seen Jobs be portrayed, I realize how impossible it is to try and summarize any person’s life. When it comes to the people you know, it is hard to find simple adjectives (especially negative ones) that wholly explain the person. The same is even harder when looking at oneself. Yet so often with icons and celebrities, we try and view them as characters in a story with simplified mannerisms and human desires. The complexity of Steve Jobs asks us to re-examine the way we’ve simplified historic figures as 100% good or evil, brilliant or insane, influential or ordinary. I am forever challenged to accept all people as complicated and impossible to define in broad strokes. I invite others to do the same, no matter how many versions of Steve Jobs’ life you care to sit through.