Universal / Everett

A portrait of the artist as corporate sage

In ‘Steve Jobs,’ the moral of the story is that the personal is the corporate

October 24, 2015 2:00AM ET

In his cinematic portrait of Steve Jobs, Danny Boyle depicts Jobs’ spartan Bay Area apartment without a sofa or chairs. But like the corporation that Jobs leads, the flat bears outsize visual shrines to Einstein and Picasso, the household gods of Silicon Valley’s self-hymned iconoclasm.

In fact, the whole film lingers adoringly on all the well-known totems of Apple-branded creative genius. There’s the near constant invocation of boomer rebel Bob Dylan, from the initial Mac launch’s clumsy quotation of “The Times They Are A-Changin’” to the hackneyed strains of “Shelter From the Storm” over the closing credits. There are absurdly detailed discussions of how the company’s legendary “1984” Super Bowl ad was conceived, produced and approved; there are tedious flashbacks to Jobs and his partner Steve Wozniak fiercely debating the philosophy of motherboard design in their now fabled Northern California garage.  

Jobs’ equally famous product launches fittingly take place in an array of arts-themed venues. The original Mac gets its coming-out party in the funky, down-market Flint Center on the campus of Cupertino’s De Anza College. The cube-shaped educational computer NeXt debuts at San Francisco’s Opera House. And Jobs’ triumphant release of the iMac — the machine that elevated him to the cyberdesign empyrean — occurs in the lavish confines of the San Francisco Symphony Hall.

The Aaron Sorkin script has our hero, played by Michael Fassbender, inform his combative co-founder Steve Wozniak that he, like a genius conductor, plays the musicians. But Boyle’s hosanna to corporate titanhood sounds tinny, discordant and confused and not — to cite another masterpiece name-checked within the first 10 minutes of “Steve Jobs” — in an epic, “Rite of Spring” way. The earthshaking wonderment of all things Apple is continually asserted in snatches of dialogue delivered by upset men (this is a Sorkin screenplay, after all) and as a result, “Steve Jobs” fails to persuade its audience that its hero’s legacy merits any sustained personal or dramatic interest.

All we get are new products — variations on the same basic software as seen through various screens — and their giddy market prospects. Apple II and the ill-starred personal digital assistant Newton are old and bad; the iMac and the successive string of Jobs-designed gadgets are new and awesome. Maybe that’s because the Apple brand and Jobs’ corresponding status as the great philosopher-king of Information Age capitalism are now so universal that we take them for granted.

The main dramatic plotline of Boyle’s movie concerns the seamless merger of mutual human obligation and intensively branded product launches. Across his labored corporate set pieces, we see the Apple brand and the entire notion of interpersonal relations function as deliberate stand-ins for one another. If second-wave feminism’s breakthrough epiphany was the notion that the personal is political, then the liberationist mantra intoned over and over again in “Steve Jobs” is that the personal is corporate.

This vision utterly fails to do justice either to computer technology or the human condition. In a climactic confrontation between Jobs and erstwhile Apple CEO John Scully, Jobs nonsensically shouts at his corporate nemesis, “You invented lifestyle advertising, and your brand was my brand!”

Such, it seems, are the baleful soliloquies of the Caesars and Brutuses of the Information Age. 

In a product-driven world, the protagonists project their indomitable will to market conquest on any casually adjacent human being, declare their work genius and blithely move on.

The movie depicts Jobs as the chilly and aloof workplace tyrant he was, as opposed to the soulful, selfless innovator we see in Ashton Kutcher’s 2013 portrayal. But Jobs’ quasi-sociopathic management style is presented with one justification: Corporate tyranny is the true path to a scalable artistic revolution. And like countless artists before him, Jobs’ visionary contribution to corporate design is framed not only as justifying his conduct but also as magically absolving him of responsibility for any collateral damage inflicted along the way.

In fact, the central drama of Boyle’s biopic is the stubborn refusal of Jobs — a child of adoption — to acknowledge paternity of his daughter Lisa, despite a legal finding that he is the child’s biological father and thus is financially responsible for her. And what, exactly, is the juncture that ultimately pushes Jobs to assume something more than court-coerced responsibility? When the 5-year-old Lisa uses the MacPaint program on a Mac prototype to produce a squiggly abstract doodle.

This is no joke; here, at last, is proof that makes sense to our genius-hero: She must be a little Jobs, since she’s clearly bursting with creative brilliance! Moved by Lisa’s show of incipient computer-enabled inspiration, Jobs agrees instantly to buy both mother and daughter a house “near a good school.” Behold, in other words, all the self-satisfied prerogatives of aristocratic privilege as we have come wearily to know it throughout world history — Oh, OK, since you seem to be related to me after all, here’s a house — dressed up as thinking different. Thank God she wasn’t simply finger-painting or futzing with Silly Putty. Then, she and her needy, flighty mother, Chrisanne would likely have been left to languish on the California welfare rolls.

In high-octane confrontations before Apple product launches, the film — again, in true Sorkin style — features a testosterone-laden idée fixe: Both Jobs and Wozniak announce, in striking non sequitur fashion, “It’s what men do.” But what is it that men do, exactly? In a product-driven world, they project their indomitable will to market conquest on any casually adjacent human being, declare their work genius and blithely move on.

Across the time-lapsed narrative of product launches spanning 15 years, we come to see Jobs grudgingly scale back his crueler interpersonal excesses and accommodate certain cloying demands of the mere humans in his life. In a crowning product launch cum family encounter session — set, fittingly, in the hours before the 1998 debut of the iMac — Jobs is fuming over Chrisanne’s decision to sell the home he has bestowed on her in princely fashion. He insists on punishing the now 19-year-old Lisa for her mom’s exercise of economic agency by withholding Lisa’s Harvard tuition. This bizarre confrontation becomes unbearable when he learns that his longtime underling Andy Hertzfeld has stepped in to float a semester’s tuition for Lisa. The generous gesture enrages Jobs, striking as it does at his fondest reveries of total, closed-system control — be it his micromanaging the iMac OS or property relations in his family.

Boyle telegraphs the hazardous convergence of the Jobs hearth and the Jobs product rollout with a set of visual flashbacks, in which fleeting moments of father-daughter intimacy continue interrupting Jobs’ efforts to memorize minutiae about the iMac’s memory capacity for the product launch. The tension mounts: Perhaps the distressed dad is about to blurt out, “Lisa really is my daughter, before the assembled worthies of the global tech press and the seamlessly designed computer interfaces of the future will be put in jeopardy!

Actually, the family reaches a truce with Jobs’ ego only when the genius looks scornfully at Lisa’s Sony Walkman and announces that he’s going to put a wealth of songs — “a hundred, no, a thousand, no, five hundred”— in her pocket. That’s right: sizing up the life struggles of his miserable, misunderstood, alienated daughter, Jobs sees the earliest incarnation of the iPod. And because she is her father’s daughter, she readily abandons her principled opposition to his feckless dismissal of his paternity and cheerfully agrees to go along with the rest of the adoring tech and business world to watch the grand unveiling of the iMac — from backstage! Having proved her genetic worth to Jobs with a Mac squiggle, she’s now gratefully poised to realize her true destiny, as part of the Jobs product line.

I have, as it happens, a Jobs story of my own. Back during his first tour at Apple, Jobs sat on the board of trustees at my alma mater, Grinnell College, where I helped organize a student group protesting the college’s investments in apartheid-era South Africa. Jobs was on the board subcommittee tasked with ensuring the ethical probity of Grinnell investments; he explained to us naive, wild-eyed college kids that GE, Westinghouse and the other companies outfitting the apartheid regime with technology and military hardware weren’t bad actors; “they just want to make money,” he said. Relax, Jobs told us; if state-sanctioned racist violence proved bad for business, why, it would just go away of its own accord.

Like other American colleges, Grinnell would eventually divest, but not thanks to Jobs. And Apple stopped selling computers to the South African regime in 1985, the year Jobs left Apple for the first time. So I, too, have an invaluable college-themed life lesson vouchsafed me by the Wizard of Cupertino: Disregard market meliorism, and instead watch how the powers that be multiply their billions. After all, it’s just what men do.

Chris Lehmann is an editor for BookForum and The Baffler and a columnist for In These Times. He was the deputy editor of The Washington Post Book World from 2000 to 2004.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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