Status anxiety

Steve Jobs was a genius, but was he a monster too?

Danny Boyle's new film reveals the splinter of ice in the Apple founder's heart

3 October 2015

9:00 AM

3 October 2015

9:00 AM

Last week I went to a screening of Steve Jobs, the new biopic about the co-founder of Apple directed by Danny Boyle, and I was impressed. It’s structured like a three-act play, with each act set backstage at the launch of a new product — in 1984, 1988 and 1998 — and then unfolding in real time. Superficially, the film is about the gradual ascent of Apple (and Steve Jobs) as the dominant force in the personal computer industry, but beneath the surface it’s about much more than that. As portrayed by Michael Fassbender, Jobs isn’t just a common or garden perfectionist. He’s neurotic, obsessive, driven, ruthless and almost inhumanly oblivious to the needs of others, including his own daughter. For Jobs, the perambulator in the hall isn’t an enemy of promise, as it is for most ambitious people. He simply doesn’t notice it.

Tim Cook, the current chief executive of Apple, has criticised the film for portraying his predecessor in an unflattering light, but that’s only half true. One of the subplots of Steve Jobs revolves around his complicated relationship with Steve Wozniak, the other co-founder of Apple, who — in the film, at least — resents the fact that his childhood friend attracts more attention than he. Wozniak questions Jobs’s contribution to the development of Apple’s products — ‘What is it that you do, exactly?’ — and accuses him of hogging all the credit for an essentially collaborative enterprise.

But this doubting Thomas never convinces. As played by Seth Rogen, Wozniak is a whiney beta male, a discarded lover of Fassbender’s Sun King. No, the film leaves you in little doubt that Steve Jobs was an out-and-out genius. In every scene he battles to protect his vision of what the ideal desktop computer should look like, right down to the tiniest detail.
Everyone around him thinks he cares far too much about this trivia, but he will stop at nothing to realise his dream. And by the end of act three, with the unveiling of the first iMac, he’s proved right.

So Tim Cook has nothing to worry about from a commercial point of view. By portraying Jobs as a once-in-a-generation wunderkind — the Picasso of personal computing — this film won’t do any harm to Apple’s reputation.

But what about Jobs’s standing as a human being? On that score, the film is more ambivalent. The central conflict is between Jobs and Joanna Hoffman, the PR woman who remained by his side in good times and bad. She’s played by Kate Winslet, although it takes a while to notice because her eastern European accent is so good. She’s the only person in the film capable of matching Jobs blow for blow, but every time she scolds him you also get a sense of how much she loves him, something Winslet puts across very well. Indeed, it’s because Joanna is so fond of him that she finds his monstrous treatment of his daughter Lisa so difficult to bear. Her effort to persuade Jobs to be a better father is the emotional heart of the film.

At first, Jobs denies paternity, disputing the results of a DNA test, and Lisa’s mother has to beg him for every penny of child support. Even in act three he’s refusing to pay Lisa’s college tuition fees, and at this point his Apple shares are worth hundreds of millions. When he finds out another Apple employee is secretly sending her money, he accuses him of doing it to spite him, to make him look small. But Jobs needs no help in that department.

The screenwriter Aaron Sorkin is careful to drop in little bits of backstory to explain why Jobs turned out the way he did — he was given up for adoption by his birth parents, but his first foster family rejected him, etc, etc — and he links these emotional scars to Jobs’s development of closed computing devices that weren’t designed to be added to or extended by the user. But Sorkin and Boyle are skilful enough to give the story a more universal resonance and we’re left wondering whether it’s possible to be as talented as Jobs was and to express yourself as fully as he did without being a bit of a sociopath. Could he have achieved greatness without that splinter of ice in his heart? The film provides a clear answer to that question, but I won’t spoil it by revealing what it is. I urge you to see it for yourself.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments
  • AQ42

    “As played by Seth Rogen, Wozniak is a whiney beta male, a discarded lover of Fassbender’s Sun King. No, the film leaves you in little doubt that Steve Jobs was an out-and-out genius.”

    The thing is, Wozniak was/is a genius. Unfortunately, his genius was as an electronic engineer, which filmmakers probably find hard to understand. The way Jobs sidelined him was appalling.

    • Gilbert White

      Agree with you but would never buy apple because nobody limits my imagination. These nerds were actually poor humans. They stole the Beatles apple trademark. To call something apple as a business plan in 1968 was truly original. Then all these top notch could think of was acorn, blackberry et al.

  • WTF

    I think its generally accepted by those interested in the truth that Wozniak was the electronics brain behind Apple whilst Jobs was the marketing brains. In any industry and especially the electronics industry its the Marketing men who get all the plaudits as they are the ones in the public eye but they can’t exist without the former and do tend to be ‘highly strung’ as I’ve seen in my working life.

    • Nick Harman

      Brand image is what sells and Jobs created a brand. Why else do we pay so much for Apple products when, these days, it’s hard to say that they are actually better in a practical sense. Writing this on a Mac Airbook, of course.

      • hobspawn

        No, they still really are better. Not a century ahead like they were in the 1990’s, but there is still a coherence to the user experience that is crucial to any general communication device. That vision of IT device as toaster-like appliance continues to stand them in good stead as such devices become ever more ubiquitous. It’s nothing to do with brand image, and all to do with shallow learning curve and user comfort.

        • Gilbert White

          Steve Jobs said it. My Nokia cables take ages to untangle. I could walk to the corner phonebox (vandalised) in the time frame. This simple communication delayed by disqus and the Spectator website nerds for example. They assume everybody has the top marque equipment.

    • Prolix

      …the sad thing is that not only did Jobs take the plaudits from Woz (whom seemed not to be so interested in them), but he was dishonest with him.

  • Sue Smith

    Steve Jobs was a bit whacky in the final analysis. When he got a Pancreatic Cancer diagnosis he failed to do anything about it and experimented with “alternative” medicines (as he had with drugs in his youth!) and it cost him his life. As is often the case with these clever types – they cannot see the woods for the trees. You can be a genius in one area but lack emotional intelligence and pragmatic intelligence in another. And he was also completely narcissistic. Judging by the comments in the article it was probably pathological.

    Dead men tell no tales.

    • Prolix

      After having read Walter Issacson’s biography of Jobs I came to the same conclusion. His hubris in ignoring solid medical practices when faced with one of the more pernicious forms of cancer cost him his life. I find it interesting/troubling that Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk both seem to share some (whilst certainly not all) of these Jobian traits. Even the Governor of South Carolina Mark Sanford, is described in The Speechwriter as having that same dismissive streak of throwing documents back at staff without even having read them. These men and petulant, peevish, and pouty.

      A couple of things that I find additionally spooky. The first is the legion of staff that are staggeringly loyal to Jobs, Bezos, Musk, et al. even though they are subject to these temper tantrums. Sure I know there is a lot that goes into this worker/boss calculus and apparently there were great rewards from the projects and even personally, but I certainly do not have the temperament for such histrionics and brow beating. Act like an adult or I will find something else to do–irrespective of how wonderful a new phone or lap top might be to the history of mankind. It is not as if this were the Apollo program or something. What DNA do they have to take these kind of tongue-lashings as if they were children?

      The second is the adoration that some hedge for these “heroes” who have often acted less than honorably in how they acquired market share. I cannot say that Bezos and Musk have done anything improper, but Jobs certainly seemed to have (as well as Gates). Doubly unsettling is that this hagiography and true believer-ship borders on an ardency that would make the followers of Jim Jones look like backsliders…

      • Sue Smith

        Firstly, thanks for the great comments. Secondly, much of this will become clear if you read “The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations”. Lasch wrote it in 1979 and it’s apposite today!!

        The American ‘dream’ of home with white picket fence is closely contiguous to the dream of financial success – the gurus who both espouse and present this latter “dream” have been treated like heroes, which validates the kind of egregious behaviour from the ‘gurus’ and the acceptance by the worshippers who work for them to swallow whole their bogus refulgences about technology. There are so many apt parallels with this and the Jones backsliders you mention.

        I wonder why Americans don’t understand their mass shooting phenomenons (I wonder if I wonder)? Add the toxic mix of political correctness, pop psychology and narcissism to that mix and you get…..well, you guessed it!!

        You are wonderful people in America, and we Australians have always liked you. But some of you aren’t so nice and I wouldn’t want to see the whole nation tarnished as a consequences of that.

    • AtMyDeskToday

      “You can be a genius in one area but lack emotional intelligence and pragmatic intelligence in another.”

      I’ve met several of these characters in my past career and not one of them could be perceived as happy.

      • Sue Smith

        Actually, I don’t think happiness is important to these people – they operate on a different plane. When I was teaching, the bright students were almost always very serious -where the middle group of kids were funny and enjoyed life. I observed this one day to my colleagues and one said, “it’s never a funny experience being bright”. Of course, there are some very funny and witty clever people – but they’re thin on the ground. But you can count on the fingers of one hand the number of geniuses who have a good sense of humour. Seriously!!

        When I talked to my son about Jobs he said, “he was impatient, but he always got the very best out of his staff”. Mmmm

        • sfin

          I do like posts that make you re-read them to see the wisdom therein (I got it on the second!)

          I also like posts that make you say: “Oh! I thought it was just me who thought that!”

          Jobs was indeed a genius – and your son was probably quite correct in that he did get the best out of his staff. But did they enjoy the experience? And would you want to shoot the breeze over a few mojitos with him?… I’m not so sure.

          Geniuses are, by definition, different and, therefore, often difficult.

  • Sten vs Bren

    If you’d seen the iPhone assembly line, you would know whether he was a monster or not.

    • Gilbert White

      Industrial serfdom comrade. Makes me wonder why affluent Chinese buy apple in droves when they have their own cheap copies available?

  • Kjell

    As long as Windows is still used on more than 90% of the computers in the world, it is misleading to say Apple is a dominant force in the personal computer industry.