This weekend, the much awaited Steve Jobs film opened in San Francisco and select cities. It opens nationwide October 23.
You might be on the fence about seeing it. Perhaps you're burnt out from the recent Apple keynote and iPhone 6S/iPad Pro hoopla, or you're thinking, 'There's another Jobs movie already'? Well, I'm here to tell you it's worth the $13 you'll have to dish out to see it. (Ok, I saw it for free at a press screening, but I'd pay to see it.) It's entertaining, compelling, and moving. This film isn't just for Apple fangirls and boys.
It only briefly touches on Apple's fabled start in a garage. Its Homebrew Computer Club roots aren't even mentioned. The products that made Apple mainstream after it nearly went bankrupt—the iPod, iPad and Macbook Airs—are completely missing. People crucial in Apple's history, like Apple ad men Steve Hayden and Lee Clow, who were responsible for the famous 1984 Macintosh ad and the 'Think Different' campaign, never make it on screen.
Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, who also pennedThe Social Network, the 2010 drama about Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, had many more years of biographical material to work with around Jobs and it results in a more interesting film. The film, which takes place over three acts—each one tied three of the most important product launches in Jobs's career: the original Macintosh in 1984, the NeXT in 1990, and the iMac in 1998—is less about computers and more about humans.
The launches are a backdrop, a kind of play within the play, to something more compelling: Jobs' broken relationship with his daughter, Lisa Brennan. That is the driving force behind the film.
With that as his aim, Sorkin takes creative license with some of the events in Apple's history and Jobs' own life—so don't expect a surgically accurate biopic. (WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD!) Jobs' other family, for example, isn't even mentioned. The film, Sorkin said during a Q&A following a screening in San Francisco's Castro Theatre, is intended to be a "painting instead of a photograph." And thanks to director Danny Boyle of Slumdog Millionaire fame, and cinematographer Alwin H. Küchler, it's a visually stunning one.
The film, which is based on Walter Isaacson's best-selling biography, opens with an old black-and-white clip of sci-fi writer Arthur C. Clarke explaining how future generations would use computers. That is the only point at which the film feels like a tech time warp. Like Clarke, Jobs was a believer that access to personal computers would change human civilization forever. He once likened the PC to a bicycle for the human mind, a tool that would amplify our capabilities limitlessly.
Putting a computer in every person's home was Jobs' raison d'etre. The film captures that well, and uses that obsession as an excuse for Jobs' Draconian tactics. There is the usual underlying tech icon worship that surrounds any discussion of Jobs but Sorkin isn't entirely forgiving. He uses Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, played by Seth Rogen, for instance, to call Jobs out on his inability to show kindness. At one point, while in front of a journalist who would record it, Wozniak tells Job being an innovator and a decent person aren't mutually exclusive.
In the first scene with Jobs in it, we jump to 1984, where a young Steve, played by Michael Fassbender, is screaming at engineers backstage at the Flint Center in Cupertino prior to the launch of the original Macintosh. Jobs is adamant that Mac needs to say hello, but the computer's innards aren't cooperating. He raves and rants, especially at engineer Andy Hertzfeld, played by Michael Stuhlbarg, the only person with the chops to fix the software glitch that has muted the machine. Nothing he tries works, but Jobs is having none of it. He tells Hertzfeld he'll embarrass him on stage in front of all his colleagues—and potential future employers— if he doesn't get the job done. He looks like a bully and a psychopath.
That's nothing compared to what he does during his first interaction with his 5-year-old daughter Lisa. Her mother, Chrisann, played by Katherine Waterson, has come to Flint to ask Jobs for money. She and Lisa are on welfare and living in a trailer park. She asks Jobs how that makes him feel. After all, he's a multi-millionaire thanks to his work on the Apple I and Lisa computers. Young Lisa asks whether the computer is named after her, and in short, Jobs tells her no. Both Chrisann and lead Mac marketer Joanna Hoffman, played masterfully by Kate Winslet, are cringing, along with the audience. Yes, this movie does not make Jobs look like the charismatic salesman he was known to be. In fact, it focuses mostly on his dark side, which has generated the most criticism from people who knew Jobs personally, according to Mike Markman, who worked with Jobs and was at one point Apple’s worldwide advertising director.
But an anti-hero makes for an interesting story—and gives the filmmakers ample chance for character development. In the middle of the first act, we start to see what look like small signs of Jobs' buried humanity. After seeing Lisa play with MacPaint, a drawing program, he tells Chrisann he'll pay for a house in a good neighborhood so she can go to school. It's unclear at this point whether his true motivation, though, is caring for Lisa or making sure she's not left out of the computer revolution Jobs is building. Is it about her or him? It's a question that persists throughout the movie. (The only reason he agrees to meet with Chrisann at all is because Hoffman tells him refusing might cause a media scandal.)
The next time we see Lisa is at the launch of the NeXT cube computer, Jobs' solo enterprise after he was ousted from Apple following a boardroom coup. The nine-year-old is telling him about her difficult life, and having to wake her mother up every morning. "Sometimes it seems like you keep saying what you want without listening," he tells her. The statement, as true of the child as Jobs, provides a moment of comic relief in a tense scene between a daughter who craves her dad's love and a father who has no idea how to give it.
When Joanna Hoffman, the only person Jobs seems to take any criticism from, gives advice for dealing with Lisa, Jobs asks her, "Do you have any experience or training in this field?"
Still, he takes her advice, and later when trying to connect with his daughter, Jobs asks her about the music she's listening to on a bulky tape player, a nod to the music products Jobs would later help kill with the iPod. But again he's not very patient as she tries to explain what a song is about. In all fairness, he is about to get on stage before hundreds of people, and he can't be late. Today is all about NeXT, and what that means for his financial future. It's six minutes to showtime.
We don't see Lisa again until the iMac launch in 1998. By this time, she's a 19-year-old student at Harvard. The relationship with her father seems to be worse than ever, as they argue over Lisa's mother selling the house Jobs bought for them. Hoffman is appalled at their relationship and threatens to quit if Jobs doesn't improve it. When he agrees to try, you again wonder whether his intention is parental care or self-preservation. Hoffman is essentially his Chief-of-Staff.
When Lisa sees Jobs at this last launch, she tells him she read Time, referring to a 1984 article in which he denies he's her father. He calls it a "mangled piece" of journalism she was never supposed to read. He doesn't know what else to say. She calls him a coward and storms off, insulting the new iMac, referring to it as a Judy Jetson easy-bake oven look-a-like. Again, Sorkin gives us much-needed and welcomed comic relief.
He follows her to the roof, and they reconcile in a heart-warming ending that invokes the iPod. But it's also the point where the film deviates most from reality, a point Sorkin conceded during the Q&A Friday.
In preparation for the film, he spent a lot of time with Lisa Brennan, who told him many unflattering stories about her father, he said. "But she'd be able to turn that story like a prism and point at something and say, 'You could see how he loved me'," he told the audience. "I knew that that was going to be my way into the story. Lisa was going to be the emotional center."
And, that she is. Though she has relatively little screen time compared to Jobs, we really do see him through her eyes. In the end, as she locks eyes with him from backstage as thousands of adoring fans clap for him, we almost forgive his neuroses, outbursts, bullying, and abuses, like for better or worse, children do with their parents. Almost.
Daniela Hernandez is a senior writer at Fusion. She likes science, robots, pugs, and coffee.