Blowing Jobs: The Latest Biopic of Tech’s Greatest Visionary Is Awful

Aaron Sorkin goes Apple picking. 

The Steve Jobs we all knew, or thought we knew for a few decades, was an appealing guy — a scruffy underdog, a canny visionary, a dauntless evangelist. He was the pied piper who led us into the future, the gleaming new age we inhabit now. He understood us — our deepest yearnings and aspirations, our tactile and aesthetic fetishes, our longing for purity. He knew people were scared of computers and he packaged them in a way that we found irresistible.

Indeed, Jobs was less a technologist or engineering genius than a marketer (just ask his Apple cofounder, Steve Wozniak, who actually put in the hours at the work bench), and he marketed himself as successfully as his products, which helps explain why we’re still collectively trying to psychoanalyze the guy with yet another feature film, the third since Jobs’ death in 2011.

In addition to the 2013 biopic Jobs, starring Ashton Kutcher, and Alex Gibney’s just-released documentary Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine — well worth a look and available for rental on iTunes — we now have a new addition to the canon, Steve Jobs, by Slumdog Millionaire director Danny Boyle and scripted by The Social Network screenwriter Aaron Sorkin.

The big takeaway from these films, along with the bestselling biography by Walter Isaacson, is that for all of his genius, Steve Jobs was not a good person. He was a dick. It may well be that nice guys don’t really succeed in business, that being a major asshole is a principal job requirement, but Jobs was apparently in a class by himself.

From the photo essay “People Looking at Their Phones on October 7, 2015,” by Aaron Gell.

The litany of his crimes is by now familiar. He scammed Woz out of most of the money for their first paid project (a videogame for Atari), just one in a series of betrayals of colleagues. He helped engineer an illegal scheme to depress wages in Silicon Valley. He ripped off shareholders by offering select employees (including himself) illegal backdated stock options. He directed the company to avoid paying corporate taxes. He allowed Apple products to be built in Chinese factories that exploited workers and spewed dangerous pollution, and he took a perverse pleasure in parking his silver Mercedes in handicapped spots, sometimes two at once.

He also helped bring the world a remarkable collection of devices that depending on your point of view has either awakened our spirits and given new life to our better selves or hollowed out our sense of community and turned half the world (present company included) into a bunch of drooling idiots who can barely walk down the street without gazing raptly at our smartphones. (See accompanying photo essay, “People Looking at Their Phones on October 7, 2015,” by Aaron Gell.)

That said, whatever the guy’s misdeeds, you’d think developing pancreatic cancer and being portrayed by Ashton Kutcher would be a more than sufficient punishment. 

But in Steve Jobs, out today, he suffers an indignity that will make even viewers who, like me, are drifting over to  Team Samsung, really feel for the guy: having Sorkin crawl inside his brain and redecorate the place with second-hand pressboard furniture salvaged from old episodes of The West Wing, The Newsroom and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.

Based loosely (I would argue too loosely) on the Isaacson biography, Steve Jobs is structured around three supposedly key moments in Jobs’ professional life, each one a major product launch during which he must unveil Apple’s latest gadget to an auditorium full of shareholders, tech journalists, employees and superfans.

From the photo essay “People Looking at Their Phones on October 7, 2015,” by Aaron Gell.

The first is the 1984 launch of the Macintosh—and as the story opens, we are thrust into straight into the frantic heart of Sorkinland. People are bustling around backstage, yelling at each other. Time is running short. Disaster looms. Steve wants the lights to dim in the hall at a critical moment—yes, all the lights—but those illuminated exit signs are mandated by law, and what would the fire marshal say? Meanwhile, there is a technical glitch: They can’t make the Macintosh say “hello” in its computer voice. It’s not working. And they can’t even get into the back of the machine because Steve just had to make it impossible to open without special tools and nobody thought to bring any. But the boss is insistent. He’s cocky, abrasive, full of himself. He just won’t take no for an answer.

By turns lacerating and smug, he’s asking the impossible. But hehas to. “We blow this,” he explains, “and IBM will own the next 50 years like a Batman villain.”

Meanwhile, he’s walking, always walking…somewhere. The screenwriter is justly famous for having his characters march purposefully around for no apparent reason, trading sharp-tongued witticisms and trailed by perspiring underlings forever struggling to keep up. Backstage areas can be a chaos of corridors, and Sorkin’s structural gambit has given him the ultimate walk-and-talk Habitrail. 

Just when the tension seems unbearable, Sorkin — and of course, director Danny Boyle, whom one imagines chasing the screenwriter around the set like one of those exasperated underlings—then tosses in a further complication. Jobs’ ex-girlfriend Chrissann Brennan has chosen that very moment — just 10 minutes before the launch of the Macintosh, with a Batman villain waiting in the wings — to come harangue him about this adorable five-year-old girl, Lisa, Jobs’ daughter, the one whom he refused to acknowledge or support in any way for years, despite dickishly naming a computer after her.

From the photo essay “People Looking at Their Phones on October 7, 2015,” by Aaron Gell.

Forty-five seconds to show time!What an opportune moment for Apple’s CEO John Sculley to engage Steve in a lengthy heart-to-heart about being adopted and whether that means he was rejected by his birth parents or chosen by his adoptive parents and how that has somehow made him maybe a little bit of a control freak.

Following Jobs’ presentation of the Macintosh, the film then moves on to cover two more product launches. While getting a peek behind the curtain at these corporate events is plainly appealing to Sorkin (who has already brought viewers backstage at a sports network, a news network, and a sketch show), it’s probably the least interesting thing about the technology industry and one of the most pedestrian functions Steve Jobs had to fulfill as he ushered in the future.

But on we go, popping in for the 1988 launch of the NeXT computer, following Jobs’ firing from Apple, and then a decade later, the launch of the iMac. In each case, Sorkin pulls the same trick: set the clock ticking (“Five minutes!”), ratchet up the stress level, and then send Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), Chrissann (Catherine Waterston), software designer Andy Herzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg), John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), a clueless journalist(John Ortiz), and either little Lisa (Mackenzie Moss), medium Lisa (Ripley Sobo) or big Lisa (Perla Haney-Jardine) over to philosophize with him, banter with him, or castigate him one by one.

There’s something oddly impressive about the way Sorkin manages to wedge just about every major technical deliberation (“What I want is a closed system, end-to-end control!”), business conflict (“Artists lead, and hacks ask for a show of hands!”) and personal squabble (“You told Chrissann that Lisa should see a therapist!”) into these waning moments just before he introduces a new device. There’s also something preposterous about it. You  know what, guys, can this wait?

From the photo essay “People Looking at Their Phones on October 7, 2015,” by Aaron Gell.

Trying valiantly to keep it all together is Kate Winslet as Joanna Hoffman, who served as Apple’s chief of marketing. But her real job seems to be to chase him around, to fret, to tell him how much time he really doesn’t have for this, and to put up with him when he mocks her tireless efforts on his behalf by impishly wondering, “Why haven’t we slept together?” 

At one point, she explains her role succinctly: “Steve, I am your closest confidante, your best friend, your...thing…what do you call it? Your work wife.” She might have added “your C.J. Cregg,” in honor of Alison Janney’s long-suffering West Wing press secretary, the character’s obvious antecedent.

But to be clear, she’s just the most prominent of an army of exasperated, clipboard-clutching women who pack the sidelines of so many Sorkin dramas.

Oh, and Michael Fassbender? The guy works hard, but he seems hemmed in by Sorkin’s narrow vision of the character. If you want to see him play a troubled superhero, you’re better off rewatching the X-Men movies.

As hard as it is to admit it, if Steve Jobs proves anything it’s that Ashton Kutcher didn’t do nearly as bad a job portraying the Apple cofounder as we all thought. In retrospect, it’s clear that Apple fan boys simply couldn’t bear the idea of their idol being played by Demi Moore’s paramour and the guy who starred in Dude, Where’s My Car? But like it or not, Kutcher is a seasoned techie himself, with investments in Uber, AirBnB and Path, among many others. The guy has more in common with the cofounder of Apple than the rest of us, plus they look alike.

As for Steve Jobs himself, it’s becoming increasingly clear that nobody really understands the guy, or ever will. Was he a hero or a villain, or a bit of both? A canny operator with a feel for design or an enlightened spiritual soothsayer? And perhaps more important, where did he lead us? And where are we going next? 

Photos by Aaron Gell