Cinema

Was Steve Jobs really a genius?

14 November 2015

9:00 AM

14 November 2015

9:00 AM

Steve Jobs is a film about a man in whom I have little interest, but for 120 minutes I was at least quite interested, which is a result. But this doesn’t make it a great film, and in many ways it isn’t. It never quite pins Jobs down. It never quite works out what it wishes to say about him. That he was such a ‘genius’ it didn’t matter if he was also a bit of a dick? Or that it did matter, totally? Plus, the ending is calamitous. But it is well made, and the performances are ace, as is the dialogue, and I was kept interested, so the journey may well be worthwhile, even if the destination is not.

Directed by Danny Boyle, this is from a script by Aaron Sorkin who, among much else (The West Wing, Moneyball, Charlie Wilson’s War), also wrote The Social Network about Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, with whom Jobs (who was CEO of Apple until his death — my mother wouldn’t know!) seems to have had much in common, if the two films are to be believed. Principally, both perfectly comprehended how people might wish to communicate, without having the faintest idea how to communicate themselves. How do you feel, the mother of Jobs’s child asks him at one point, about me and our daughter being on welfare, when Time says your stock is valued at $410 million? ‘The stock,’ he replies, not with deliberate cruelness, but because it’s his world-view, ‘is undervalued.’ He had previously denied his daughter’s paternity, even after a DNA test had proved he was the father. Not a touchy-feely man, in other words, and one with absolutely no care for the feelings of others, but as played by Michael Fassbender, who is riveting, you understand that he doesn’t understand what he’s not understanding. ‘I am poorly made,’ he even confesses, in a rare moment of self-awareness.


Travelling from the early Eighties to the late Nineties, this is a biopic deconstructed into three 40-minute acts that happen in real time backstage prior to the launches of the Apple Macintosh, the NeXTcube (his doomed computer for schools) and the iMac. The fact that Jobs is due on stage offers a narrative urgency, while the quick snap of Boyle’s direction — the camera is on the move all the time, but not to exhausting, Birdman levels — ensures that although this is a film in which nothing happens apart from people talking to one another (it’s a ‘non-action’ film, if you like) it never feels stodgy or inert.

The story is told through his key relationships, most notably with his head of marketing and ‘work wife’ Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet, with a coming-and-going East European accent), who appears joined to him at the hip and who spends less time on marketing than on undoing the personal harm Jobs might have done in relation to other key figures. Must I list them? I suppose I must, as they do keep turning up. So there’s his Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), programmer Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg), one-time Apple CEO John Sculley (a delicious Jeff Daniels), the mother of Jobs’s daughter Chrisann (Katherine Waterston) and that daughter, Lisa, who is played by various actresses at various ages. The dialogue between them is pure Sorkin, in that it is marvellously clever, and cracks with the velocity of a screwball comedy, but I won’t give any examples of any of the lines here, because you do need to hear them delivered. ‘I sat in a garage and invented the future,’ says Jobs, and now I have given you an example, while proving why I shouldn’t have. Sounds nothing on the page.

I’ve no idea what’s true here, or what isn’t, what’s been conflated, what’s been omitted, but I would hope to come away with a proper sense of the man, and this is where the film trips up.

Beyond those rare moments of self-awareness, which, I have to say, felt rather contrived, Jobs’s inner life is nowhere, and as for the ‘genius’, where is that? ‘Musicians play their instruments. I play the orchestra,’ he says of himself. But we never see him playing that orchestra; only ever see him as a driven perfectionist shouting at people. It also fails to deliver on what I call the ‘great cook, terrible human being’ problem, which is what Marcus Wareing said of Gordon Ramsay, and while I’m not comparing Ramsay to Jobs — Ramsay has not changed how we all live our lives, as far as I’m aware —it does raise the knotty issue of personality and its entanglement with talent. ‘You can be gifted and decent,’ Wozniak tells Jobs, but could Jobs have been? The filmmakers take no view on this, which leaves us all somewhat up in the air. And as for the ending, which wants to be redemptive, but merely comes over as syrupy and sentimental, it is so beneath all involved I never wish to think of it again. The journey, not the destination. It’s only worth it for that.

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Show comments
  • Gilbert White

    Not in the sense that Picasso, Darwin or even John Lennon where? Jobs loved the fine young cannibals tune, tells me a lot.

    • IainRMuir

      John Lennon was?

      • SPW

        Darwin was?

    • King Zog

      Or Beethoven.

      • Sue Smith

        That gentlemen is too lofty to appear in any ordinary list!!

        • King Zog

          Agreed.

          • Sue Smith

            If you’re interested in ‘the master’ there is a forum dedicated to his music.

            It used to be much better a couple of yeas back, before a troll drove everybody away (poor moderation), but there may be some very useful discussions from the past to provoke your interest:

            http://www.gyrix.com/forums/index.php

          • King Zog

            Thank you kindly. I’ll check it out.

          • Sue Smith

            Go to the bottom of the page “Beethoven and Classical Music Discussion” and look for entries from 2010 – there are some terrific discussions (many of which I participated in as Bonn1827).

    • Sue Smith

      Why put John Lennon on that list? He was a bogus refulgences renaissance man who couldn’t read music.

      • Fraser Bailey

        Actually he had very good taste in women. Cynthia seems to have been a very nice person, and Yoko was and is a considerable and possibly even great artist.

  • Richard Eldritch

    Nah, Wozniak was the brains and Ives was the creative. Jobs gave us the Newton.

    • Ivan Ewan

      Jobs wasn’t even around when the Newtwon was invented, ignoramus.

  • davidshort10

    No.

  • MikePage

    Thanks for the review. I was edging to see it and now I probably will. I don’t mind that it doesn’t judge Jobs; it’s too soon for truth to be established, the Reality Distortion Field may have been unplugged but it still glows with latent energy over Apple. And, I would rather go to a book than a film for truth truth. If I want an impression, then a film is perfect.

  • King Zog

    The NeXT Machine wasn’t doomed (and it was just a computer ‘for schools’ – Tim Berners-Lee wrote and ran the first web server on one). Anyone who has a Mac today – or even an iPad or iPhone – is using a very close descendant of that line of machines.

    • CGR

      Very true.

      Apple II was also a brilliant design for its time. I learned to programme on one in 1980. I then had to use the BBC Micro – what a come down !!!

      The Mac was revolutionary and the Newton should have been a world beater and so should NEXT. The rest is history.

      Probably the greatest technical entrepreneur of the last 100 years. But don’t forget the importance of Woz at the beginning, without him there would not have been Apple.

  • King Zog

    How many people know he was half Syrian, by the way? His biological father was from Homs.

    • Hegelman

      Entirely Syrian, in fact. He as adopted.

      • King Zog

        I know he was adopted. I’m pretty sure only his biological father was Syrian. His biological mother, I believe, was an American of German descent.

        • Hegelman

          In character he was a bachelor like his father.

      • Sue Smith

        Shows just how great it’s possible to be, despite being Syrian!!

        • Hegelman

          Jews are Syrians. I once saw a man who was a complete replica physically of countless Jewish intellectuals I have come across, like Bernard Lewis, Saul Bellow, Isaac Deutscher, Chaim Bar-lev. I thought he was reading a Hebrew newspaper. It turned out to be Arabic. He was a Syrian Muslim.

  • omgamuslim

    The only apple Apple I ever used was an Apple2 perhaps, if memory serves right, with an e appended. Used it to write a program to design steel highway culverts. Since then I have managed to do perfectly alright without an Apple of any description, thank you very much.

    • John A

      Yes but lots of ideas from the Apple Mac flowed into Windows 95 and lots of ideas from the iPhone flowed into Android and every other phone.

  • Themos

    I am singularly impressed with the LaserWriter innovation. That alone proves Jobs was a genius. He “boiled the ocean”.

  • Freddythreepwood

    What! No nurses jumping up and down on beds?

    • will91

      Don’t remind me please, it just makes me angry…

    • uberwest

      Surely he can’t have forgotten to shoehorn the ‘vast contribution of immigrants to Uk history, the economy and everything else’ into the film as well?

  • SPW

    Here’s the only reference to the medium of film in this whole review…

    “the quick snap of Boyle’s direction — the camera is on the move all the time, but not to exhausting, Birdman levels — ensures that although this is a film in which nothing happens apart from people talking to one another (it’s a ‘non-action’ film, if you like) it never feels stodgy or inert.”

    Rest could be about a play or a book. I’m pleased that recently, on other pages of the Speccy, articles about film have been appearing. There’s nothing (almost) about film here. Soundtrack for example?

    • Sue Smith

      Perhaps you’d be interested in Film Score Monthly Messageboard, which has a great deal of discussion on film music. There are some real experts who post there too.

      http://www.filmscoremonthly.com/board/threads.cfm?forumID=1

      • SPW

        I’d be interested in a film reviewer who reviewed films instead of re-telling stories and telling us whether she enjoyed them or not. Thanks for the suggestion though – I’ll look it up.

        • Sue Smith

          Look, I completely agree with you. Nobody knows much about music, so it’s assiduously avoided. If you are interested in very good film reviews, essays, commentary and the like, look no further than:

          http://www.cineaste.com/

          I’ve been getting it for decades.

  • sidor

    He is a genius, of the same kind as Soros, or Zukerberg. To make billions out of thin air you need to be. Those who do real things do not get much any more. Tesla was probably the last genius who got rich.

    • Sue Smith

      Agree. And he was SO handsome!!!

    • Fraser Bailey

      Jobs was responsible for more ‘real’ things than almost anyone else in history.

      • sidor

        According to the polls, most of the Americans believe that computer was invented by Bill Gates. Do you think it was Jobs?

        • CGR

          Babbage, Turing and then the team at Manchester Uni that made the Manchester Mk1 in 1949 !!!!!!!!!!

          The first real business computer was LEO – Lyons Electronic Office, operational in 1951.

          The computer was a British invention.

          • sidor

            Babbage out. Von Neumann in. the rest is approximately true. Von Neumann worked with Turing in Cambridge as a visiting professor. They died poor. No movies about them.

      • Terence Hale

        “Jobs was responsible for more ‘real’ things than almost anyone else in history.” I used to run a computer department in a one of the largest European Universities. It was always a decision of resources. Apple computers were expensive, for one apple I could buy three PC’s. Apple computer were simple to use I always gave the disabled preference to an apple computer. History has it they changed their operating system many times as also there chip leaving a trailer of discontent. Taking just one bite from an apple leaves the rest to rot.

    • Mike E

      Jobs was not a genius. A person with the right idea, business wise, at the right time. That goes for Zuckerberg too. Jobs was good at esthetics and usability when personal computers were all about function.
      History is full of real geniuses though, most of them unknown to the laypeople commenting here. It’s only Tesla people know about for some reason and who has become a posthumous star. Through popular culture, like movies, I guess.

      • sidor

        Tesla is interesting in one respect. He was probably the last of those giants who created the enormous wealth of the modern society, and was payed for that. He got $ 15 millions for his share in Westinghouse. This is still nothing as compared with what the modern market manipulators like Zuckerberg or Jobs get for producing essentially noting, just for appearing in a right place at a right time. And the parasitic public don’t care who provided their prosperity: they believe that to be wealthy and comfortable is their right given by God.

  • Fraser Bailey

    I dislike and distrust most technology. But I love my Apple laptops, not least because PCs have always given me a nervous breakdown, such is their illogical lack of user-friendliness. I have read various books on Jobs and Apple, including the ‘official’ biography by whatisname (Walter Isaacson, I think). I think Jobs was a genius. Remember that he was also substantially responsible for Pixar and Toy Story (not that I have ever seen Toy Story).

    In particular I love the way in which Jobs refused to tolerate ppt presentations, and all other forms of stupidity.

  • Mauryan

    No. Steve Jobs lucked out. He had terrible people skills and had great difficulty working with anyone. he was brash and arrogant. He had no special talent for anything. He was a dope head. If his luck did not play out he would have been a hippie wandering the streets. All creative things done by Apple are by the people who worked for that company. He was like a cult leader who could drive many talented people to achieve his dreams.

  • Mauryan

    If you are thinking of a genius, think of Tesla, Einstein etc. If you are thinking of a visionary, think of Henry Ford. Steve Jobs does not come in either category. He knew how to project an image and mesmerize people with his actions.

  • Terence Hale

    In my opinion Mr. Jobs was an opportunist under no circumstances a genius. The beginning was stealing the work of the ETH Zurich Lilith computer who stole their work from Palo Alto Research Centre Incorporated, formerly Xerox PARC. It started as Xerox. As yet I have not seen the film but I respect Michael Fassbender. A philosophical note; with all his wealth Mr. Jobs could not buy
    his life.

  • Mike E

    Jobs was not a genius. He was a person with the right idea, business wise, at the right time. That goes for most of the business stars today, like Zuckerberg etc. Jobs was good at esthetics and usability when personal computers were all about function.
    History is full of real geniuses though, most of them unknown to the laypeople commenting here. It’s only Tesla people know about for some reason and who has become a posthumous star. Through popular culture, like movies, I guess.

    • Todd Unctious

      Jobs was no genius. Jobs was lucky.

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