Film Review: Steve Jobs
“If you are portraying a man best known for creating something, especially technology, compare him (for it is always a him) to the thing that he is famous for creating (with only the mildest amount of subtlety). This way, you will be seen as clever and profound in peeling back the layers of this character.”
Thus, the film Steve Jobs. Also this was the inspiration for the terrible, overly extended metaphor I use to conclude this article; you have been warned.
Such a dismissal is perhaps too glib for a film which I actually like a lot, but the thematic beats of Steve Jobs are undeniably familiar. You’ll most likely recognise them from screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s other people-who-changed-the-world-with-technology-opic The Social Network, but it’s there in The Imitation Game, fictional films like Burnt and anything else about a tortured artist/genius. You can sum up their chief preoccupation with one sentence: the only computer/formula/connection/food he couldn’t understand… was people. This tactic largely works for Steve Jobs, which is actually a pointed insight into secular theologies of sin and humans as created beings. Thankfully, it’s also good enough that people like me who don’t care much about Apple, can also enjoy it.
Sorkin’s film, directed by Danny Boyle, is a league ahead of most biopics. Where many try to plod through the events of a man’s life, this condenses conflicts with fellow Apple staff-members, the progress of technology over 14 years and Jobs’ role as a father into three acts, each set before a product launch. The idea that all of the people who have serious issues with Jobs would turn up at the same time before the next leap in technology is announced is, evidently, a fanciful one. This, however, is a drama, not a documentary, and Steve Jobs is theatrical and grandstanding without ever claiming to tell the whole story. We learn everything we need to without actually having to see many of the events play out, and the result is something far leaner and with a much greater dramatic impact than many a biopic.
The chief appeal, and problem, is in Sorkin’s writing. The writer of The West Wing has legions of fans, who love him for his acutely observed, unrealistic verbal sparring where every conversation feels like a game of one-upmanship. People who enjoy that kind of dialogue will love Steve Jobs, a film that is, essentially, a series of conversations. This is people walking and talking, or standing and talking, or occasionally sitting and talking. Boyle, thankfully, manages to add visual flair whenever he can and does an admirable job of making this a cinematic experience. Everything becomes a screen, from corridor walls to the floors and curtains of backstage, where poems and anecdotes play out in the background; Jobs is therefore always in the glow of some kind of projection. Yet even fans of Sorkin will readily admit that he can be too arch, that his witticisms can be grating and that he can’t modulate the tone of his language – that’s also true with Steve Jobs, but the strengths of the script easily outweigh such annoyances.
Then, there is this classic issue of comparing the creator to his creation. These themes run throughout the film, but essentially boil down to one line, a sentence that stuck in my head long after the film finished. His daughter is confronting him on the roof of a conference centre, arguing with him. He can put so much care and attention into the machines he makes yet he was a neglectful and often spiteful man towards his family. How can that be? His response: “Because I’m poorly made.”
I find this one sentence fascinating – and I’m clearly supposed to, it’s sort of the emotional crux of the film, loaded with dramatic weight – because it’s actually a sentence that hints at a secular theodicy. There’s an implicit understanding of humans as created beings in the sentiment, where people are a product launched by a creator, albeit with the same flaws that you might find in a Macintosh. Jobs’ obsession with closed systems, computers that can’t be modified by the user, then becomes a reflection of him as a person as unchanging, stubborn, unalterable. Yet he says that he is poorly made, as if the simple, user-friendly interface of an iMac is somehow a better product than a complex, broken human being.
This confession is more of an indication as to how Sorkin understands the human condition than as to how Jobs did. It’s a screenplay where all the dialogue is heightened and Jobs may never have said anything of the sort, yet it’s telling nonetheless. Jobs shaped the way that humans interact with technology, which is true whether you like his products or not, understanding with remarkable prescience the way that computers would be popular for their aesthetics. Here is a man who, as depicted in the film, is acutely aware of his own genius with regular and tiresome self-made comparisons to Einstein, Da Vinci and even Jesus a couple of times. This is his first acknowledgement that there is something wrong, something inherently broken about him. Yet he absolves responsibility for being a terrible person (and he is, in the film at least, relentlessly terrible) by putting it down to something in his programming. Steve Jobs gives us an insight into one way that people process the fact that humans, even the brightest, are capable of wreaking huge emotional damage, of mistreating their friends and neglecting their families. Its answer as to why we are all capable of this is that we are poorly made.
This is one of those answers that’s so compellingly close to the Christian perspective; we are made creatures, with an inherent flaw. What it fails to take into account, though, is that Apple creates all of their products with built-in obsolescence, and even my trusty, custom-built PC will need upgrading. All technology will become obsolete (Apple products faster than others), but humans are built to last forever. We were created to live in union with God, but the glitch called sin screwed that up, caused us to reject God and become the kind of person who can never shake this brokenness. It’s not that we’re poorly made, is that we willingly download a virus that cuts us off from the original developer.
To get rid of it, we have to install a new operating system, fresh from the developer, that gives the human hardware a reboot and slowly eliminates the damage that the virus has done until one day it will be eradicated completely. We are so much more than poorly made machines, we are far more fearfully and wonderfully made than any phone, tablet or laptop, and we have in us the capacity to defy our journey towards obsolescence by reversing that journey and daily upgrading ourselves. Perhaps that’s what Steve Jobs and Aaron Sorkin both missed.