I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve seen the 2015 movie Steve Jobs. It’s the one that stars Michael Fassbender, not Ashton Kutcher. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve tried to nudge my friends and family toward watching it, too. To them, it’s a movie that was seen and left behind by many in 2015; it’s no big deal. I’ve lost track of how many times my friends said they’d never watch this one pretty well-received, but otherwise, probably unremarkable movie, just because I’d seen it maybe 30 times or more. They’re concerned.
Even if I had the capacity to push them toward trying it (“people don’t know what they want until you show it to them”), my friends, my family, and my exasperated wife would walk away saying “That? That’s the movie you can’t shut up about?” It’s the movie I’ve seen the most under quarantine (including one watch each with the two commentaries that come on the Blu Ray), and possibly the same for the before times. I’ve finished it and started all over again. I’ve played it on the subway, listening only to the audio. I’ve watched or listened to it on more than one continent, up to three times in a day. I read the interviews and watched the New York Film Festival Q&A where Kate Winslet barely gets any questions and I’ve heard Aaron Sorkin’s many different ways of saying he didn’t want a “cradle-to-grave” structure and I’ve read Danny Boyle talking about his reverence for Sorkin. I wasted 2 hours watching the supremely mediocre Jobs, because when you’re stuck in an all-consuming relationship with a movie or a piece of art or a particularly good donut shop, you want to take in every variety and idea that you can. I’m like Agnès Varda and the gleaners in The Gleaners & I; I’m trying to glean. Everything I can.
If I went in order from here, telling how I first saw the movie with my mom, then revisited it 3 years later, then got it stuck in my head like a bad song and then like a really good song, in a beginning-to-end, beat-by-beat telling with all the hit moments along the way, I would’ve learned nothing from Steve Jobs, at least in terms of storytelling. If I kept going on this navel-gazing path of pointedly telling a story in a way that’s not like all those other stories — this story goes to a different school — then I would’ve learned nothing from my feelings toward Aaron Sorkin, whose language I like quite a lot, and who spent a lot of the Blu Ray commentary asking editor Elliot Graham why different bits of his language, which he, too, likes quite a lot, were removed from the movie. My most significant memory of Aaron Sorkin is him saying “Damn it, how could this have happened?” before telling you in his Masterclass ad why you shouldn’t write that. He’s an exacting guy and he probably sees himself in Steve Jobs and Boyle sees himself in Steve Jobs and I don’t see anything of myself in Steve Jobs, but I see some of myself in Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg) wearing a loose-fitting t-shirt and tying his shoes onstage while Steve Jobs (Michael Fassbender) complains about a computer not doing what it’s supposed to do.
It’s so easy to go back to the old favorites. You hold onto what you’ve already got. For so many people, if their parents showed them a movie that came out before 1985 when they were young, it’s enough to make it a classic, but for any other movie from that not-so-distant past or earlier, they’d rather not come to it for the first time. It’s like what I say every so often, which is that I don’t want to be writing; I want to have written. But that’s not really true. Being stuck inside is concerning. The world is concerning right now. If this is being read in the future, the world may be concerning then, and I hope you’re doing alright. If you’re reading this at any time, I hope you’re doing alright. Jobs didn’t care if people were doing alright, if you’d believe the movie. Jobs didn’t care how most people were doing until he’d pushed them to their lowest point, if you’d believe the book it’s based on, Walter Isaacson’s biography.
Let’s talk about the reality of the movie. Steve Jobs is a biopic. Aaron Sorkin would tell you that it’s not a piece of journalism; it’s a piece of storytelling. (What else would he tell you?) I’ve seen the fictional and the real versions of the movie — or, at least, those versions of parts of the movie, because most of it didn’t happen — because old keynotes are available on YouTube. You can watch the movie, then see how it stacks up against reality, then back again. Sorkin’s big idea with this movie is not to use a “cradle-to-grave” structure (he uses this phrase a lot); it takes place in an approximation of real time before three different product launches that the real Steve Jobs was at the center of. If you watch the B-roll, you can see that Boyle recreated the keynote speeches from those launches, at least in part, but you don’t need to watch those bits and pieces to make the comparisons. You get either a bit of rehearsal, a discussion about a detail going into the launch, or something of the like. Sorkin’s works tend to slip in the bits and the pieces that you need to get the gist of what’s going down.
The presentation of the iMac in 1998 — which Boyle, following filming in the Flint Auditorium Center and the San Francisco Opera House in keeping with history, chose a new venue to shoot in — was fascinating, but there are still the hitches of reality. Jobs walks over to the computer and then a beat and then he clicks the mouse and another beat and then the demo. In Steve Jobs, the 2015 movie, Michael Fassbender plays Steve Jobs in the turtleneck and jeans he wasn’t wearing in 1998 at the launch of the iMac and says “This is the iMac,” and he pulls the cover off in synchronization with the sounds of the lights shutting off and Daniel Pemberton’s electric score takes over the scene, and it’s not just because the exit signs are off (you see? It’s like poetry; it rhymes) that this historical retelling feels so cool. It’s Reality+ and it’s comforting.
The end of the movie is kind of like that, too, but it’s disingenuous. On a rooftop parking lot that’s not actually on the rooftop of the building they shot in, Michael Fassbender, playing Steve Jobs, reconciles with his character’s daughter, Lisa. He brings back the drawing a different actress playing Lisa pretended to draw earlier and he unfolds it from his pocket and she looks at him as the lightbulbs flash and he smiles at her onstage and she loves her dad. It’s probably because the idealized products mimic the feelings we get when we see the unveilings and announcements, unless you’ve pledged yourself to a different phone company, in which case Apple is and always has been a company full of idea hacks and copycats. But people. People are what matter. Unless you’re Steve Jobs.
It can be intoxicating listening to “Great Men” even when you know they’re not great men. I’ve watched/listened a lot to Orson Welles’s The Other Side of the Wind, a movie about a “Great Man” that was directed by a “Great Man.” It’s a movie about the making of a movie, and both movies have the same name. Whether you watch it from the outside-in (production horrors in trying to get this movie to ever be made) or the inside-out (the psychological and physical torments by a repressed alpha male played by John Huston), you see these “Great Men” put their loved ones and acolytes through their onslaughts and then, you hope, it’ll all turn into something incredible. But The Other Side of the Wind wasn’t finished by J.J. Hannaford and the other The Other Side of the Wind wasn’t finished by Orson Welles, and maybe everything Welles put cinematographer Gary Graver through (cf. the making-of documentary, They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead) and everything J.J. Hannaford (Welles stand-in-ish) put Brooks Otterlake through (Peter Bogdanovich stand-in) wasn’t really worth the failed end-result. But also I like my iPhone, so I can live with the past, I guess?
One of the pieces of Pemberton’s score for the 2015 movie Steve Jobs that I enjoy the most (and there are a lot of good parts) is what he described as an orchestra tuning up, which turns into a melody. It coalesces. That music plays while Michael Fassbender, playing Steve Jobs, says “I play the orchestra,” which is to say that Steve Jobs was best at getting other people to do things right. He did this by poking and prodding people in his exacting ways, repeating ideas back to people as if they were his, creating dichotomies between “insanely great” and “bullshit.” But was anything great ever made without alienating some people involved? Besides Paddington 2? If anybody walks out of Steve Jobs thinking that the lesson is to push people because that’s how they’ll do the best, it’s not the right lesson, but it’s also not a lesson the movie fully discourages, since everything pretty much works out for Michael Fassbender’s performance of Jobs. Even John Sculley (Jeff Daniels) comes back to give him a Newton (they edit in the words to Daniels’ mouth — if you watch the movie enough times, you pick up that he’s not moving his lips when words come out) because it’s a reconciliation. I also can’t help but love the sentiment of the scene and the way Daniels says “Let’s let it go now,” because even in the less real moments, Steve Jobs is a movie starring people at the top of their game (except in the last scene).
Michael Fassbender doesn’t do an impression of Steve Jobs and he doesn’t try to look like Steve Jobs, and that’s not just because he’s not Ashton Kutcher (who was in the 2013 movie Jobs, a different movie). It’s evocative. None of this happened, Andy Hertzfeld said, according to Aaron Sorkin, as recorded on the Blu Ray commentary. But all of this happened (except for the last scene). It’s art and it’s a masterclass on how to tell a story (a. I’m not really into using that phrase; b. Damn it, how could this have happened?) that doesn’t have to be the story you thought you should tell. And then Michael Fassbender says that line, “It’s like five minutes before every launch, everyone goes to a bar and gets drunk and tells me what they really think.” It’s still not as awkward as the Bob Dylan lyrics projected on the floor and walls (added digitally in post) in the first third of the movie (did you know it’s a three-act structure?), but these are also the thoughts of a person who’s seen the 2015 movie Steve Jobs over 30 times. Boyle likes comparing the story to Shakespeare, so I’ll just say about all this, “Take in what sense thou feel.”
It’s like music. It’s like music that has awkward lines (“I got over the Mac and Woz and Sculley the same way you get over your high school sweetheart; build a new one.”) and that feels like a stage play that had cutaways layered onto it, but not as many cutaways as the 2013 movie Jobs’ incessant need to show people applauding the genius of Jobs, its hero. The more you watch the movie, the more it feels preordained, because that’s how everything is supposed to happen (it doesn’t matter if I come to a satisfied conclusion about why watching Steve Jobs a lot is therapeutic — my wife will still be exasperated). Steve Jobs, the 2015 movie where Kate Winslet takes no prisoners and Michael Stuhlbarg breaks your heart, is my comfort movie, even though it’s an insanely tense movie where your worst nightmares of claustrophobia are filled with quick-paced dialogue and one-upmanship that feels a lot less clever when you start to notice how crafted it feels. But you barely notice it because of how amazing everybody is (except in the last scene — but Fassbender uses his lower teeth like a well-tuned instrument when he says “I’m poorly made”). It’s my comfort movie. I’ve accepted I’m alone in this. For those considering, there are two options the character Steve Jobs offers on one of his computers: “buy it or don’t.” I doubt my disinterested friends are still reading, but I’ll let it go now. Must be time.