Steve Jobs isn't your typical biopic. That's something we explored in our interview with its director, Danny Boyle, and writer, Aaron Sorkin. It's more like a play set in three acts, each of which occurs right before a major product debut. And yet, it's hard not to approach it as a biographical film -- Jobs' name is right there in the title; what else would you expect? So, it's not too surprising to see the film being dismissed among some techies because it isn't 100 percent accurate. Jobs didn't really have life-changing conversations with his friends and family before these product announcements! Joanna Hoffman wasn't even working at Apple when he launched the iMac! These are all facts worth bringing up -- but focusing on those inaccuracies also misses the bigger picture.
Art doesn't have to be accurate
Not to put Sorkin on too high a pedestal, but what he's doing with Steve Jobs is no different than what William Shakespeare did with his many "historical plays." Julius Caesar, for example was based on Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans -- a series of biographies. Shakespeare condensed action to make things more dramatic, introduced characters that never existed and basically constructed the entire play around his dramatic vision. Similarly, Steve Jobs is a film that uses elements of Walter Isaacson's biography, but takes plenty of liberties to tell a story about a genius and his contentious relationships with his daughter and the people around him.
Really, it's hard not to see Jobs as a Shakespearean character in the film. He's a man with a singular vision of how computing will change the world, and the willpower to make it happen. And yet he's not able to admit that Lisa Brennan-Jobs is actually his daughter, even though a paternity test made that indisputable. How do you reconcile those two sides of his personality? You can do that by exploring the facts, as documentarian Alex Gibney did with Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine. Or you can show how Jobs matures from a hotheaded guy that's too smart for his own good, to someone a bit older and a bit wiser, as Sorkin and Boyle did.
Michael Fassbender's casting also makes sense -- he doesn't really look like Jobs at all, but that's also a reminder of the artifice of the film. We know we're not really looking at someone trying to be Jobs; we're instead exploring the idea of Jobs.
There's plenty of truth in the film
On top of using Isaacson's biography, which was approved by Jobs (even though it didn't always paint him in the best light), Sorkin also talked with most of the people featured in the film. That includes former Apple CEO John Sculley, who's most famous for firing Jobs (and who has worked hard to stay out of the limelight for the past few decades); and Joanna Hoffman, the marketing executive who was a part of the original Macintosh team and was among the closest people to Jobs. And of course, Steve Wozniak had plenty to say, as well. The lead actors also had a chance to meet their real-life counterparts, which added a bit more nuance to their roles.
All of that context grounds the relationships in the film, even if the film itself presents a bit of a heightened reality. Sculley, for example, is seen as a father-figure for Jobs, which makes his ultimate betrayal all the more heartbreaking (even though Jobs basically forced his hand). Hoffman, meanwhile, is Jobs' rock. When she pushes for him to accept Brennan-Jobs as his own, you can feel the weight of years of friendship behind it. Wozniak and former Mac engineer Andy Hertzfeld end up serving as moral foils. Woz wants Jobs to acknowledge the employees he's trampled on, and Hertzfeld serves as a sort of surrogate father to Brennan-Jobs when she needs help the most.
Lisa Brennan-Jobs actually participated in the film
Jobs' eldest daughter, Brennan-Jobs (her name was changed when she was nine), also agreed to talk with Sorkin about the film. That's particularly surprising because she didn't even talk to Isaacson for Jobs' official biography. As Sorkin tells it, their conversation allowed him to see the humanity behind a man who refused to accept his child.
"I'll be honest, it was very difficult for me to initially get past Steve's treatment of his daughter," he said in our interview. "I thought ... the story kind of stops there for me. I don't care what's past that. I never said that to Lisa, but Lisa helped me past that. She would tell stories about her father that weren't necessarily the most flattering stories, but she would always, at the end of it, kind of point and say, 'See? He really loved me because of this.' And that was very helpful."
Though plenty has been written about Jobs over the years, Brennan-Jobs' experience hasn't really factored into much of that. It's refreshing to see her perspective as part of a Steve Jobs story, for once, even if it isn't completely true to life.
[Photo credits: Universal Pictures]