Aaron Sorkin may have misunderstood Facebook, rewritten history, and created television moments that welcomed wide derision, but when it comes to Apple, he got it right. Sort of.
Steve Jobs is now five years old, and revisiting it the week after the release of his sophomore directorial effort, The Trial of the Chicago 7, it’s easy to focus on the Sorkinisms — the screenwriter’s oft-mocked, nobody-behaves-like-this quirks — and miss that Sorkin did something remarkable in this movie, because he understood Apple. For the most part.
Before 2017’s Molly’s Game, Sorkin’s scripts were always directed (and edited) by somebody else. Listen to his commentary to Steve Jobs with editor Elliot Graham and you’ll hear Sorkin asking why this scene of his was cut and how about the other one, too? Steve Jobs, directed by Danny Boyle, is a story about fathers — biological, adoptive, figures — failing their children. It’s about righteous indignation and Great Men trying to do Great Things as Ordinary People stand in their way. In other words, it’s a classic Sorkin script.
But then, Michael Fassbender as Steve Jobs (in a performance that goes beyond mere impression) says something like “We’re a computer company; we can’t start late,” and despite Sorkin’s repeated career disdain for the internet, there’s something in that moment that really starts to click.
“We’re a computer company; we can’t start late.”
Steve Jobs is at its best when it’s working through the debate that has been posed as Mac vs. PC, iOS vs. Android, design vs. function, luxury vs. price, and probably a number of other ways: who should technology be designed for and how much control should they have? Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen) and Steve Jobs have the debate in the movie. Woz insists the Apple II should have as many slots as possible, to let each user take their computer and “jack it up.” Jobs argues it only needs two slots — one for a printer, the other for a modem. While Jobs doesn’t articulate his position as the two duke it out in the hallowed garage (what’s a Steve Jobs movie without a garage scene?), it’s pretty clear that it’s a question of form over function. Wozniak insists that the Apple II is a feat of engineering. Jobs says it’s a painting.
Jobs’ position on end-to-end control in every machine he creates repeats itself throughout the movie, as he repeatedly upsets his team with his insane particularities. He introduces two over-designed and overpriced computers: the $2,500 Macintosh that “doesn’t do anything” and the NeXT computer, where all the focus went into the black box’s near-90-degree angles, and all the neglect went into its incomplete OS. His head of marketing, Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), snarks at him for designing rectangles with rounded corners. Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston), his ex and the mother of his daughter, mocks his NeXT computer for having to be a perfect cube. His daughter, Lisa (played in that scene by Perla Haney-Jardine) yells that the iMac looks like “Judy Jetson’s Easy-Bake Oven.” His friends, family, and coworkers don’t fully understand what he’s trying to achieve (“I don’t get it,” Chrisann says. “I know,” he drily responds.) as the costs keep going up and the timelines keep slowing down while he tries to build his perfect machines.
But he’s not as insane as he’s made out to be, because when the technology works in that perfectly human, easy-to-understand sort of way (cue the ad line), it just works. Jobs insists on switching his shirt because the floppy disk needs to fit in his shirt pocket. Watch the 1984 launch and listen to the reaction that stunt gets, only surpassed by the cheers as the Macintosh introduces itself, using text-to-speech conversion. That’s how so many of us want technology to feel: slick, cool, easy. Text commands get beaten out by point and click because “that’s not how a person’s mind works.”
Then, there’s the other side. The side that wants to put widgets on screens, install their own keyboards and emulators, maybe use a stylus, and fully customize their own tech experience. The people like Raymond Wong turning a LEGO NES into a functional set or Steve Wozniak playing around with a Nixie tube watch. It’s the kind of stuff that can involve soldering, tinkering, pulling tools out on an airplane (“Excuse me, flight attendant? The man next to me would appear to be detonating a bomb.”), but it’s not the “It just works” philosophy. And it’s not fully controlled by the manufacturer.
In this movie’s portrayal, Jobs clearly cares about creating tools that will inspire creativity. The most resonant and most repeated image in the movie is of Jobs’ daughter (then played by Makenzie Moss) discovering MacPaint and drawing an abstract. He offers a five-year-old the mouse, and as easily as the ads make it seem, she figures out how to use the computer to make a work of art, without being prompted to do it at all. The mouse (stolen from Xerox PARC) becomes a natural extension of the hand, much in the way director Danny Boyle frames one shot with the Macintosh replacing Jobs’ head. And it’s a “bicycle for the mind,” encouraging creativity.
It just works.
If you come into Steve Jobs detesting the Apple philosophy, Sorkin’s dialogue and Fassbender’s performance likely won’t convince you of anything. The biopic depicts a guy who so deeply believes in making things easy in his way, he wants one of two employees to change their name because they both go by Andy. He’s also the guy who says “the very nature of people is something to be overcome.” But he understands something about the nature of humans. And five years later, it’s great to come back to a biopic that doesn’t just tell stories of his life in order; it pretty much gets his whole thing about making tech for humans.