What was Steve Jobs really like behind the curtain of his product launch events?
Steve Jobs, the new movie from Oscar-winning director Danny Boyle that opens Oct. 9, seeks to answer that question by focusing on the pressure-filled moments immediately before three of Jobs's famous presentations. Written by screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, who also wrote the screenplay for David Fincher's The Social Network, the movie explores the central conflicts of Jobs's life by compressing them into three tension-filled scenes that play in real time, each lasting more than 30 minutes.
The film opens just before the unveiling of the Macintosh, in 1984. From the very first frame, Jobs (Michael Fassbender) is presented as a domineering boss, threatening an engineer to fix a glitch in the presentation or be publicly humiliated. "We don't have time to be polite," Jobs says to Apple marketing chief Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), who acts as the voice of reason during Jobs's frequent tirades.
The other woman begging Jobs to be decent throughout the film is his former girlfriend, Chrisann Brennan (played by Katherine Waterston), who is raising their daughter Lisa on welfare. While refusing to recognize Lisa as his child, Jobs pays the minimum $385 in child support to Chrisann, despite having a net worth of more than $440 million. It is only after watching Lisa use the Apple software MacPaint backstage at the product launch that Jobs agrees to put money in Chrisann's account and buy her a house. Though at times the movie feels like a laundry list of all the ways Jobs could be cruel to his closest companions, small moments of compassion prevent the filmmakers from portraying him as completely heartless.
The second act of the film opens with Jobs preparing to introduce the NeXT computer, in 1988. The movie skips over Jobs's resignation from Apple, but a flashback to a conversation with CEO John Sculley (Jeff Daniels) casts Jobs as his own worst enemy in the final hours before his departure. Instead of taking Sculley's advice to focus on the Apple II computer, by far the company's greatest moneymaker, Jobs stubbornly rejects the only strategy that could save Apple's stock price from plummeting. "I don't care about the shareholders," Jobs says before a vote by the board overrides his plan to invest in the Macintosh.
A decade later, having returned as the CEO of Apple, Jobs is confronted by his original co-founder Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), and his daughter Lisa, now 19, in the moments leading up to the unveiling of the iMac. Wozniak pleads with Jobs to finally publicly acknowledge the work of the engineers behind the Apple II--something Jobs repeatedly refused to do--while Lisa demands that Jobs explain why he repeatedly denied being her father. Neither person gets a satisfying answer. But the answer Jobs does give does help, if only slightly, to avoid casting Jobs as an utterly ruthless individual. "I'm poorly made," Jobs tells his daughter, in a line that likens him to the machines he spent his life creating. It's the most self-critical moment in the whole movie.
Though Steve Jobs tries to encapsulate many of the Apple co-founder's most significant life events into just three days, the film is no biopic. (It's worth mentioning, however, that the real Steve Wozniak was paid to consult on the film.) It is instead a dense and compelling character study of an innovator whose determination to change the world with products led him to spurn many of the closest people in his life. The facts about the man's life are already well-known--and yet the movie manages to show you a Jobs you don't quite feel you know, thanks to Fassbender's portrayal.
At one point, Sculley seems to suggest that Jobs's being adopted made him feel rejected, creating almost an affinity for being disliked. But Sorkin has his protagonist explain otherwise.
"I don't want people to dislike me," Jobs says. "I'm indifferent."