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Why “Steve Jobs” is a great film even though the US box office hated it.

“Why do you want people to dislike you?” Apple engineer Andy Hertzfeld asks Steve Jobs, in the new biopic about the late entrepreneur. “I don’t want people to dislike me. I’m indifferent to whether they dislike me,” Jobs replies. Jobs was an undisputable tech genius, but also a complete asshole. What then, should we make of him? Jobs’ ability to inspire both admiration and contempt is the theme and major plot driver of director Danny Boyle’s new film, Steve Jobs.

Unlike the chronological narrative of the insipid 2013 film, Jobs, which begins in 1974, the 2015 take sees screenplay writer Aaron Sorkin focusing on three defining and seminal moments in Jobs’ life: the 1984 launch of the successful Macintosh personal computer, the 1988 introduction of what became a massive failure, the NeXT computer (which Jobs designed after being forced out of Apple), and the 1998 debut of the iMac following Jobs’s triumphant return to the helm of the company he founded.

Each of these three sequences begins back stage, where Jobs (played by Michael Fassbender) is preparing to deliver his presentation. Each time, Jobs is interrupted by important personal matters , though he finds these distracting and annoying. Each time he is assisted by his marketing executive Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslett), who, despite being blunt about Jobs’ shortcomings as a person, remains faithful to him and his vision.

In the first sequence, in 1984, Jobs’ technical team is panicking because the Macintosh is unable to say “hello” to the audience as planned. Jobs is maniacal and unsympathetic, ordering Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg) to “fix it”. At the same time, Jobs’ attention is being diverted by Chrisann Brennan, a former lover who is standing in his dressing room, demanding he recognise five-year old, Lisa, as his daughter. Jobs is a prick of note, and agrees to pay Brennan money but continues to deny paternity (he makes rather awful remarks in the media about Chrisann’s sex life). But already, Boyle and Sorkin make sure the audience can’t hate him. In a rare moment of tenderness, five-year old Lisa creates a drawing on the Macintosh which Jobs prints it out and keeps it for years to come.

By 1988, Jobs is down on his luck. He now acknowledges nine-year old Lisa as daughter and pursues a relationship with her. But, his career is mess. After being booted out of his own company the tech giant moves from one failure to a next. While this is frustrating, Jobs’ ego never takes a knock. Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen) expresses his frustration with Jobs and the latter’s refusal to acknowledge technicians. “You can’t write code. You’re not an engineer. You’re not a designer. You can’t put a hammer to a nail. I built the circuit board… So how come ten times in a day, I read Steve Jobs is a genius? What do you do?” Wozniak exclaims. Jobs’ pithy reply captures the magnitude of his hubris: “I play the orchestra, and you’re a good musician.”

This is an attitude repeated during the third and final major sequence, ahead of the launch of the massively successful and redeeming iMac in 1998. During another argument with Wozniak, Jobs again refuses to acknowledge any technical staff who worked on the failed Apple II. The audience is left to decide whether Jobs’ vanity can be forgiven in light of his genius.

Steve Jobs is a character-driven film that is heavy on repartee. It focuses on Jobs’ inability to form interpersonal relationships, mostly because of his ego. Jobs saw himself as a genius, a visionary, a god. And he was. He was also rude, condescending, and a narcissistic prick. At one point Wozniak tells him, “It’s not binary. You can be decent and gifted at the same time.” Jobs never really bothered to try.

Despite tanking at the box office (it’s made less than $18 million since its October 9 release), Steve Jobs really is a good film. Fassbender, who marvellously captures Jobs’ idiosyncrasy, has been touted as a contender for Best Actor at the Academy Awards. He’s already been nominated in this category at the Screen Actors Guild Awards and the Golden Globes, both of which take place next year before the Oscars. Sorkin has been nominated for a Globe for Best Screenplay and Kate Winslet for Best Supporting Actress.

Boyle believes Universal Studios’ release strategy is what caused the film to bomb so horribly. Perhaps, as awards season gets fully underway, interest might be piqued again.  Regardless, it is an engaging and in-depth look at one of the seminal figures of our time; at a man who, ironically, managed to connect intimately with millions through his technological inventions, yet was unable to do so with those closest to him.


Director: Danny Boyle

Cast: Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslett, Seth Rogin

Rating: 4 out of 5

SA release date: 25 December 2015


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