There's a telling sequence of shots midway through Steve Jobs, the impressive new biopic of the Apple co-founder.
First, viewers see Joanna Hoffman (a pitch-perfect Kate Winslet), a longtime Jobs loyalist who's joined him at his new tech company NEXT in the wake of Apple firing him. Hoffman searches his face. She's the one person who seems to understand him. But even she's feeling a little lost right now.
Then director Danny Boyle flips the shot around completely so we're looking over Joanna's shoulder at Steve Jobs (Michael Fassbender) himself. And from here, we follow Jobs as he prepares for the presentation that could make or break his career. We know Jobs will return to Apple. We know he'll turn the company into a monster success. But he doesn't know that.
This is Steve Jobs in a nutshell. In each of its three acts, it follows people like Joanna and Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen — great as the film's conscience) and Jobs's daughter, Lisa, as they try to understand this man who holds such sway in their lives. And then the structure flips, and Jobs tries (and often fails) to understand himself. It's structured like a stage play but shot like a backstage rock concert documentary. It's wonderful in spots, maddening in spots, and entirely too sentimental in its ending. But it's also unquestionably worth seeing.
And it all comes down to the five different views the film has of its main character.
1) Steve Jobs as man
At the center of Steve Jobs are two central questions, which sort of contradict each other. The first is: How could Steve Jobs be so brilliant at understanding what people want and so terrible at understanding people on a one-to-one basis? And the second is: Did Steve Jobs actually do anything, or did he just coast on the success of others?
In terms of the latter, Steve Jobs resoundingly believes that Jobs was, indeed, a business virtuoso. But it struggles more with the former, particularly when it comes to the relationship between Jobs and Lisa. He begins the movie denying she's his daughter and ends it grasping for a rapprochement with her that might never come. It also neatly sketches out his relationships with Joanna, Woz, and boss John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), hoping to find some twinkle of who Jobs really was in his interactions with his work versions of a wife, brother, and father.
Both the film and Fassbender (who plays Jobs like a control freak wearing a control-freak costume) find their most fruitful material in considering Jobs's relationship to his own adoption, to the idea that he was not in control when the most important decision of his life was made for him.
Steve Jobs tries way too hard to end on a feel-good climax, but in the moments before that, especially, it gets at how Jobs could understand people as a nebulous concept, but rarely the people to whom he mattered most.
2) Steve Jobs as God
On the other hand, the film makes a somewhat convincing, only half-joking case for Jobs as, essentially, the creator of the world we live in today. It argues that his true skill wasn't in building computers, but in understanding how irrevocably they would rewrite the future. And being so successful at that could only feed his megalomania and his increasingly inflating ego.
In a joke early in the movie, Jobs berates an underling (Michael Stuhlbarg) for not having the Macintosh's speech program working in time for the product's public introduction, telling him he had three weeks, and God made the universe in a third of that time. "You'll have to tell us how you did it," the underling snarks. But Jobs takes it all in stride. If you're going to mock him, best not to mock him for being God. On some level, he probably believes it.
The film believes this is intrinsic to Jobs's greatness. It's when he's domineering and difficult and hyper-focused that Boyle's camera frames him so he simply engulfs any space he steps into. It's when someone important to him briefly disarms him that he diminishes within the frame. Control is everything in Steve Jobs.
3) Steve Jobs as Aaron Sorkin protagonist
This makes Jobs the perfect protagonist for the film's screenwriter, Aaron Sorkin. Sorkin, probably best known to many for his television work on Sports Night, The West Wing, and The Newsroom, seems to write almost exclusively stories about Great Men (always men) who tackle The Problems of the Age, all while being just a little condescending about it. Needless to say, he's found his muse in Jobs, and this is one of his very best scripts.
Jobs accidentally forms the end of a loose trilogy of Sorkin scripts about how technology and the new ways of thinking it brings with it have upended civilization. The Social Network (for which he won an Oscar) painted this as a beautiful catastrophe. Moneyball (which he co-wrote with Steve Zaillian) saw it as a necessary correction — the nerds finally getting one over on the jocks. And Jobs exists in an uneasy middle. Technology would save us all, if only we could stop being so human.
Sorkin's masterstroke here is in structuring the story as, essentially, a stage play. It's told in three long "acts," with the introduction of the Macintosh in 1984, the first NEXT computer in 1988, and the iMac in 1998. All three unfold in more or less real time, and all three involve Jobs confronting the same handful of characters. You could pretty easily strip out the various flashbacks and moments of connective tissue and mount this on Broadway.
But Sorkin also understands this is a movie, not a play. And Boyle is in perfect sync with him.
4) Steve Jobs as force of nature
Maybe Steve Jobs isn't a man or a god. Maybe he's a tornado, sweeping in to tear down and destroy, so something better might be rebuilt in his wake.
This is how Boyle seems to approach the question, at least. There are so many shots in this film when Jobs seems to be the meteor, hurtling toward Earth (or, rather, some unknowing subservient). Jobs is mercurial and unpleasant and occasionally very, very generous.
He pegs the mother of his daughter as some sort of kook, but also doesn't seem to grasp that having to beg him for scraps and get him to acknowledge his child as his own might be driving some portion of her mania. He's not a great man; he's a small, petty man who learned to dress the part and fool everybody.
Boyle uses the movie's filmmaking technique to reflect the relentless push of technology, too. He films 1984 in grainy 16-millimeter film, then 1988 in homey, classical 35 mm. Finally, 1998 is filmed digitally, the better to add a layer of distance, of alienation. Jobs has won, but he's destroyed everyone he knew and knocked over everything in his path.
It's only when the film finally breaks out of its claustrophobic interiors (all those backstage hallways!) into a parking lot that Boyle allows his camera to pull back and encompass the world beyond Jobs. He may be a major force in it, but he's only one.
5) Steve Jobs as prophet
The best biographies offer a variety of possible reads of their central figures, before circling around one heavily suggested idea. And if Steve Jobs has one, final notion, it's this: Steve Jobs didn't have to become the American icon he is. He very easily could have been wrong about everything he predicted — and very nearly was. But because he ended up being right about a few crucial things, we now think of him on the level of Henry Ford.
At the center of Sorkin's script is that idea of control, not just of other people but of the machines that are sold to them. Woz, in developing the Apple II, tells Jobs that users want customization. They want to be able to do whatever they want with their machines. Jobs disagrees. Users want to be given fewer options, not more. They'll feel more comfortable with something someone else has created and controlled.
We don't live in Woz's world anymore, not really. That's evident every time you see the familiar Apple logo on another piece of tech, and it's evident the more we move our lives online. There was a time when tech could feel like some final frontier, a Wild West that existed mostly in the mind.
But that time is over, buried under profile pictures and streaming queues and 140-character shouts into the void. In order to live in that world, we had to hand over control somewhere. Jobs understood that we would, eventually, and when Steve Jobs finally ends, he's poised on the edge of winning the future.
Steve Jobs is playing in New York and Los Angeles. It will expand throughout the country in the weeks to come.