‘Steve Jobs’ surprised me.
I hadn’t heard too many people talk about it. But there was no way I was going to miss it. It was written by Aoron Sarkin and directed by Danny Boyle. And Steve Jobs and Apple have been the entrepreneurial inspiration when we started our advertising agency – the ‘1984’ commercial for Macintosh being the creative benchmark one aspired to in one’s work.
So boy, was I surprised! What an energetic, inventive and engaging biopic Sorkin-Boyle combo has confected! ‘Social Network’ was refreshing in its approach. This took it a few steps further, thanks in no small measure due to two rivetting performances – Miachael Fassbender as Jobs and Kate Winslet as Joanna, his s near-constant companion, a marketing executive who describes herself at one point as Jobs’s “work wife.”
But first let us quickly recap the Jobs and Apple story that the film is trying to capture. Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak founded Apple in a garage to build what was perhaps the world’s first personal computer: Apple. They refined it to build a more advanced version: Apple II, which was a runaway success and Apple became a cult company. Wozniak or Woz built the motherboard and did lot of the engineering. Jobs was the charismatic leader and the marketing brain. Mike Marakkula a multi-millionaire was among the earliest funders of the company. With the rapid growth they needed a more orderly management, and Jobs convinced PepsiCo President John Sculley to join Apple as its CEO. It was quite something…Pepsi was an iconic American brand and a large company and Apple was just a start up. But such was the charisma of Jobs. It is believed Jobs lobbed the question, “ Do you want to spend the rest of your life selling sugared water or you want to invent the future?” to make Sculley swallow the bait. In the meanwhile IBM had launched its own PC with Microsoft’s OS and was a big success. Apple was developing two products to take IBM on: LISA and Macintosh. LISA was a flop. Macintosh after a slow start eventually succeeded. But not everything was hunky-dory at Apple Inc. There was a clash of management styles between the maverick visionary Jobs and the profit-oriented traditional manager Sculley. Jobs was planning to fire Sculley when the latter turned the table and fired Jobs whom once had hired him, with the help of the board. Silicon Valley was shell-shocked. Jobs founded a new company and set about building a new computer named ‘Next’ with a perfect back cube cabinet for the education market. The product was a resounding flop. But things weren’t going too well at Apple. New products launched by Sculley, especially Newton, the handwriting recognizing PDA, were failures. They ended up with a loss of one billion in a quarter. Sculley was fired. But the new CEO couldn’t fix thins either. Eventually Apple bought the operating system NextSteps from Jobs and brought him on as an adviser. Pretty soon he was back in CEO’s chair driving the new product development. The first new product to hit the market in the second stint of Jobs at apple was iMac…and it was a resounding success. Many variants followed, notably MacBook, the laptop, then iPod, the music steaming service iTunes, the tablet computer iPad and of course the IPhone. And while at Next Jibs had also funded Pixar of LucasFilms, the studio that produced the world’s first fully computer-animated film, the hugely successful Toy Story. It is said Jobs has the unique distinction of revolutionizing and leaving his winning imprint on six different industries: personal p computers, digital publishing, tablet computers, music, and phones.
There was also his personal life. Born of Syrian immigrant father and American mother he was put up for adoption on the condition that the adoptive parents should be Catholics, college educated and wealthy. The original adoptive parents backed out, saying they wanted a girl, and Jobs was adopted by Paul and Clara, none of whom had gone to college. Jobs’ mother refused to sign the papers but later relented when promised that Jibs would go to college. Jobs started living with a girl he met at Reeds College, Chris Anne, and had a daughter, Lisa, from her. He initially refused to accept that he was Lisa’s father and it was settled through a court case and paternity test (94% was the match). He later grew fond of Lisa. He never married Chrisann. He married Laurene , a Stanford graduate whom he met while giving a lecture there, and had two children, Erin and Eve, with her. Jobs died after batting pancreatic cancer for some 8 years, in 2011 at the age of 56.
Most people following Apple and Jibs know most of this. So how do Sarkin and Boyle present this familiar story on screen? Spectacularly. The first audacious decision: All the action in real time takes place before the launch of three products – Macintosh, Next and iMac. It provides the tense atmosphere with the clock ticking ( We are a computer company. We are never late.) in which Boyle wants to stage his frenetic talk drama. It is in these tense moments before he goes on stage that Job meets off stage the principal characters that help us connect the dots if his life – Woz, Sculley, Chrisann and Lisa .
The film opens with Jobs getting ready for the launch presentation if Macintosh. Engineer Andy Hertzfeld is facing some problem with getting the PC to say Hello. ‘Can’t we skip it? We never told anyone that it will say Hello’, Andy pleads. ‘No. It is a friendly computer and it has to say Hello.’ Jobs threatens to shame Andy in front of the whole crowd unless he fixes the voice simulator. He sees someone with a disc in his breast pocket. He tells Joanna to get him a white shirt with a breast pocket, it would be a great idea to pull out the disc from his breast pocket. ‘But is 8.30 and no shop would be open.’ ‘Then go the lobby and catch hold of a guy my size with a white shirt.’ And he takes off shirt and hands it over to Joanna. ‘Can it be blue?’ ‘No. The computer is beige. The jacket is blue. The shirt has to be white.’ Then we learn that Chrisann and Lisa are there to meet him. He has a big showdown with Chrisann. She tells him of the Time magazine interview where he said she slept with 28% of American male population. “I did not say you slept with 28% of American male population. I said 28% of male American population could be Lisa’s father based on the 94% DNA match using my algorithm.” Then they talk money. After a lot of rough talk he shoos her away saying he will put some money in her account so she ca buy a house in a neighbourhood with a good school. Woz meets him with a request – Could he acknowledge the Apple Ii team, a least call the senior guys on stage? No he could not. This was about Macintosh n not Apple II which deserves to be retired after 7 years’ glory run. Sculley comes in to go over his own presentation. He is trying to decide which verse of Dylan song ‘ Times They Are A Changing’. The line ‘ Your children they are not in your command’ leads to talk about his biological father whom Jibs had not seen and his helplessness as a one month old child being passed around from parent to parent being the origin for his need fir control. We don’t see Jobs making the presentation – we never do, in all the three launches – but we see intercuts of the famous 1984 commercial, the one that Ridley Scot made for 1.5 million USD and the one that was run only once , during the Superbowl. It shows with a Big Brother like character from Orwell’s 1984 on a giant monitor talking in a monotone to a hall-full of shaven-headed slave workers. There is a blue tinge to the scene, suggesting the Big Brother to be IBM. The scene is intercut with an athletic young woman in red shorts and white vest running towards the audience with a sledge hammer in hand. In the final denouement, she smashes the monitor with the sledge hammer and the superscript comes on: 1984 won’t be like 1984. The crowd breaks into a rapturous applause . lateer we see Sculley and Jibs discussung the ad. Sculley saying how the board had its apprehensions. How he has been selling to consumers from 18-155, and he always showed the product and the product being consumed and how he never attacked his competitors and we sense the growing difference between Jobs and Sculley.
Before the Next launch we see a slighter older Lisa measuring the sides of the black cube and telling her father that they are not equal. Jobs explains, “Yes. Two sides area milometer short. It is an optical anomaly. If it was a perfect cube, it won’t look like a perfect cube to the human eye.’ That is perfectionist Jobs for you! The launch is happening at the San Francisco Opera, and Jibs is telling Woz what the conductor told him when he asked him what exactly he does: The musicians play their instruments. I play the orchestra. Later in the middle of a heated argument, Woz tells Jobs, “ You agve mea pass for life? I designed the motherboard of Apple II. You cannot write code. You are not an engineer. What do you do?’ “I play the orchestra,’ Jobs answers.
Then after Jibs is back in the saddle at apple we are at the launch of iMac. This where Sculley talks of the episode where Sculley fires Jibs. He says it is Jibs who forced his hands by insisting on the board’s vote knowing very well the vote would go. This is also when Joanna announces Chrisann and Lisa and tells Jibs don’t try to win the argument with Lisa. Jibs is angry that she let her mother sell the house that he had bought for both at a throwaway price to buy some antiques. But Joanna won’t listen to any of this. ‘you make it alright with Lisa or I am quitting. Right this moment. And you can talk to me over phone in my new job.’ Then unfolds the most poignant scene involving Jibs and Lisa. They clear a lot of misunderstanding. Jobs informs her that Local Integration System Architecture means nothing and the Lisa was named after her. Shew ants to see the essay she had written for the Harvard magazine. ‘ you are getting late,’ she says. ;’Maybe. But there is no iMac launch unless you show me he essay.’ Then he sees her Walkman. ‘What is that brick you are carrying around. Soon you will be able to carry 500-1000songs in your pocket.’ They go I for the presentation together. The correspondent from Time magazine is there backstage. He points to a portrait with ‘Think Different’ at the corner. “Who is that?” “Alan Turing. There should be statues of him in every city. Every school child should know his name.” “Isn’t he the one who killed himself by biting into a poisoned apple? Is that how the apple name came about? “That would have been interesting story. But no, it just happened. And he won’t make it to the campaign.” “ Why?” “Because you just asked who he is.” The ones who make it to the campaign shown during the presentation include Einstein, Martin Luther King Jr, Muhammad Ali, John Lennon and Picasso. Later Jobs tells Lisa that the stroke that Picasso doodles is exactly what she had drawn on the Macintosh as a child.
That is the kind of connection that Boyle keeps making every moment in the film, darting from one memory to the text, with wild change of camera angles to match. Though it is mostly talk you wont be able to keep up with the frenetic energy the film displays. And what a performance Michael Fassbender delivers. The body language is impeccable. The play of emotions and emotions held back draws an enigmatic portrait of a man that you cannot take your eyes off from. And Kate Winslet plays a perfect parallel presence growing believably older over the years but never letting us forget the very special relationship she shares with Jobs.
With ‘Steve Jobs’ Sorkin and Boyle have redefined the biopic making it one of the most exciting genres of cinema.
- Air and Space Museum, Washington DC
- Central Park, Skyscrapers