In a case of life reflecting art, I am writing this review on a machine designed by the lead character of this movie. Within arm’s reach, two more gizmos credited to the same person sit on a night stand, a fourth and fifth sit patiently in the next room. I wouldn’t be lost without these pieces of technology (since they aren’t the only pieces of technology that do what they do), but I bring them up to underline the way one person’s ideas wove their way into my own life. I’m not alone in having so many items designed by one brand, but now and then I wonder about what it takes for any one brand to ingrain itself so deeply into any one person’s life. What sort of vision and drive is required at the top for it to filter down through design, execution, and marketing and finally find its way into the hands of consumers like me?
I have to imagine the vision required is one of pseudo-madness, and brusque disposition.
STEVE JOBS is the story of the titular character, co-founder of Apple Inc (Michael Fassbender). The story focuses on the lead-up to three product launches, letting us listen in on the conversations that swirl around the run-up to each.
The film begins in 1984 at the launch of the MacIntosh computer. With his right hand Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet) at his side, Jobs prepares to unveil the product to the world, organized chaos is unfolding behind-the-scenes. One of his lead engineers, Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg) cannot get the demo machine to say “Hello” – a detail Jobs is hellbent on demonstrating, threatening public humiliation if it doesn’t work. Meanwhile, his ex-girlfriend Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterson) has arrived to discuss child support for her daughter Lisa; a child Jobs denies being the father of.
In the wings is John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), the Apple CEO who doesn’t completely believe in what Jobs is selling, but believes in the man selling it. Finally, there to wish him luck is his Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen). “Woz” wants Jobs to recognize the team that designed The Apple II which preceded The MacIntosh. Jobs is reluctant, feeling that the launch of a look forward is no time to be looking back.
We then move to 1988. Jobs has been forced out of Apple after the failure of The Mac to take off. We catch up with him at the launch of the NeXT Computer; a direct competitor to Apple. Brennan returns, now needing more support as Steve’s daughter grows and her own health concerns mount. Jobs is wary that the mother of his child is being duplicitous in her requests. Hertzfeld and Sculley are in the house as curious onlookers, though Sculley takes time to challenge the legend that Jobs was fired, reminding him that it was Jobs himself that forced the company’s hand. Finally, there’s Woz, who wonders aloud if Jobs has grossly miscalculated the usefulness of his latest product.
We conclude in 1998, with Jobs being brought back to Apple. At the unveiling of the iMac, the subject of Lisa going to college seems to be on everybody’s mind. Hertzfeld is called upon to cop to the fact that he paid for Lisa’s tuition behind Jobs’ back, which leads to a full understanding of the two men’s impression of one-another. Lisa herself is on-hand, though unimpressed with her father and trying to keep her distance despite Hoffman’s pleas. Finally, there’s Woz, still wanting Jobs to recognize the Apple II team, and still challenging what it is Jobs actually does for Apple.
A fair question: Jobs isn’t an engineer, he isn’t a designer, he can’t build a circuit board or design graphical interface. Just what – and who – is Steve Jobs?
There is a lot that can be gleaned from listening in on a conversation. You get to understand so much about a person not only from what they are saying, but how they are saying it. It’s listening to those inflections in STEVE JOBS that makes it worthwhile to watch a film that is essentially three long scenes. In these moments, we are able to hear the way some people are inspired to greatness, and others antagonized. It’s one thing to push a person further than they thought they could go, it’s another thing to threaten them to stick the landing “or else”. Is one approach better than the other? If it gets the same result, who’s to say?
That’s the thing about a team coming together to create something for the enjoyment of a customer base or fandom. Every scene in this film takes place at a public unveiling – a familiar sight that has been employed for a long time and continues to happen today. Seated in the house for each event, and lined-up for blocks outside of the venue is a boisterous fan base and clientele. In many ways, they’ve already handed over their money. What they (and we) don’t always realize, is that backstage a very tense atmosphere has been building for months and years in the attempt to please that fan base. These people do not necessarily love what they are doing, who they are doing it with, or who they are doing it for. Yet they do it anyway. They do it to take a risk, to learn, and to hopefully achieve something.
Here in the world of consumption it’s a perfect little circle of discover/buy/use/repeat. Behind the curtain, in the world of design and marketing, it’s anarchy. This film wants us to think about such things when we see how particular and consumed Jobs gets in trying to sell us what he hopes we will buy.
All of this is told through conversation. We don’t witness anything being built, being bought, or being sold. We listen to discussions, arguments, and recounts, and through them glean that clever people are often difficult…but they get people to listen to them anyway.
When a film like STEVE JOBS comes along, the temptation is there to look for the closest platform, stand up straight and say “Actually…”. Actually Jobs never said that…Actually this person wasn’t in the room…Actually that didn’t happen that way. None of that is the point. Some of these conversations may have happened the way they are portrayed, some might not. What is the point is that the heart of one man and one company is brought to light truthfully, if not necessarily accurately.
What is truthful is that we have a habit of building-up both brands and names and seldom understand the nuanced history behind them. What is truthful is that people like Steve Jobs get all sorts of credit for things they don’t necessarily do – or did do, but stole from others first. What is truthful is that there is nothing wrong with that, has happened before and will happen again. What is also truthful is that men like Jobs get lionized, even though they are in fact very complicated people behind closed doors.