About five minutes into Danny Boyle’s new Steve Jobs film, my wife was saying, “Boy, this is a case study in narcissistic personality disorder.” In case you haven’t read a Psychology textbook lately, this is a mental condition characterized by an inflated sense of one’s own importance and a lack of empathy for others. Narcissists will often bully others until they break them so as to assert their superiority over them, but still need and expect a fawning admiration. Thus relationships are unfulfilling to say the least. Generally, however, for the narcissist this uber-confidence is a veneer masking low self-esteem.
It’s no secret that Jobs at least demonstrated characteristics of narcissism. There is even a debate about whether that was good or bad for business. Generally, there is a possibility that narcissistic leaders tend to self-destruct and often lead their companies into disaster. Earlier this year, however, the Journal of Applied Psychology published a study called “Leader Narcissism and Follower Outcomes: The Counterbalancing Effect of Leader Humility,” which suggested that business leaders are actually more successful if they have narcissistic traits but balance them with some humility, which Jobs reportedly learned to do later in his career.
That in fact is what Boyle’s film, or at least Aaron Sorkin’s script, seems to suggest was the case with Steve Jobs. Based largely on Walter Isaacson’s 2011biography of Jobs, Sorkin’s screenplay is divided neatly into three acts, each of which is set during a product launch that proves to be a turning point in Jobs’ life and career: the first in 1984 at the launch of the first Macintosh, the next at Jobs’ launch of the NeXT computer, and the last the triumphant 1998 launch of the iMac. We are behind the scenes at each of these launches (in scenes reminiscent of the behind-the-scenes newsroom scrambling or White House strategizing of Sorkin’s The Newsroom or The West Wing) as Jobs (played flawlessly by Michael Fassbender) interacts with his closest associate and marketing director Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), his oldest friend and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogan), Apple CEO and Jobs’ surrogate father figure John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), bullied and beleaguered Apple engineer Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg), ex-girlfriend Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston), and Lisa, the daughter he initially refuses to acknowledge, played by Makenzie Moss at the age of five in 1984, Ripley Sobo at nine in 1988, and Perla Haney-Jardine at 19 in 1998.
While this limited, three-act play-like structure makes for a neat and clearly structured film, it may seem artificial or contrived to some viewers. Sorkin recognizes this himself, and late in the film has Jobs remark ironically “It’s like five minutes before every launch, everyone goes to a bar, gets drunk, and tells me what they really think of me.” While there is no doubt that this self-assessment is accurate, the struture still makes for good drama, and it helps create the arc that is the real heart of the movie, and that is the changing relationship between Jobs and his daughter Lisa. She is the one person with whom this narcissist actually does have a real relationship, though it is definitely a struggle for him, and there are a lot of rough spots along the way—rough spots that Lisa herself may have helped Sorkin clarify, since it is known that she did make herself available to the makers of the film (something she did not do with Isaacson’s biography). In any case, Fassbender’s Jobs becomes most sympathetic in some of his exchanges with his daughter. But is it enough? Mostly, he comes off as the biggest jerk since…well, I suppose since Jesse Eisenberg’s portrayal of that other narcissistic computer entrepreneur, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in Sorkin’s screenplay for The Social Network in 2010.
What may be the ultimate take-away form the film is encapsulated in a line delivered by Rogen’s Wozniak late in the film: “It’s not binary. You can be decent and gifted at the same time.” In a sense, Wozniak is the moral compass in the film. Early in the movie, in a flashback depicting an early argument with Jobs over Jobs’ disastrous insistence that the Mac should not be able to interact with any other system, Wozniak tells him “Computers aren’t supposed to have human flaws. Why would we want to incept this one with yours?”
But as Jobs’ assistant, Kate Winslet as Hoffman is the audience surrogate, and her loyalty to Jobs throughout the film is what chiefly prevents us from completely writing him off. She is almost always present and is subject to his charisma, knowing he is a genius of sorts but also seeing his flaws. It is she whom the audience relies on to persuade him to treat his daughter with some humanity. In the end she stays with him, and perhaps Sorkin believes we will as well. Wozniak walks out on him, but even he returns for the iMac reveal: perhaps, like us, he can’t take his eyes off of Jobs.
Fassbender as Jobs gives a compelling performance as the enigmatic Jobs, capturing his inflexibility, his ego, his disregard for others, but also, at times, the tiny inklings of humanity that creep through. But the supporting cast is excellent as well: Winslet is practically perfect (as she always is) as the long suffering angel on Jobs’ shoulder Hoffman, and Rogen’s performance is deceptively effortless as he captures the emotional Wozniak. Daniels, a veteran of Sorkinesque rapid fire dialogue, is compelling as the rejected father figure Sculley, as is the less recognizable Stuhlbarg (A Serious Man, Blue Jasmine) as the abused and bullied but highly sympathetic engineer Hertzfeld. All bring a variety of foils for Fassbender to play off of. In the end, though, it is his film, and rises or falls on the strength of his performance, which is remarkably impressive.
Boyle, best known for his previous Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire, chooses a different style for each of the depicted product launches, and by doing so suggests the passage of time technologically, even as each computer revelation is a technological advance of its own. The 1984 launch uses 16mm film and has a musical score using vintage synthesizers. The 1988 launch uses 35mm film, and utlizes a full orchestra. The 1998 launch is digitally filmed and electronically scored, and so we feel the progress of technology as we watch the progress of technology.
But it must be admitted that this is mostly Sorkin’s film. The chief criticism of the film has been the fact that absolutely nothing in Sorkin’s script actually happened the way he presents it. These confrontations did not occur at these particular turning points in Jobs’ professional career, and none of the dialogue represents actual conversations. There are also things that are left out of the film, I suppose for the sake of streamlining the narrative: the fact that by 1998 Jobs was married and had two other children (soon to be three) is never brought up in his confrontation with 19-year old Lisa in that segment.
So viewers may question, and legitimately, whether they are seeing something that is about Steve Jobs or something that is about the abstract notion of narcissism and its effects on business and on relationships. As such we might conclude that the film gives us a kind of broader truth, though it gives us a collection of subjectively arranged and sometimes distorted facts. Sorkin has made no claim that the story is purely factual: he has said that “I hope the movie announces itself as being a painting instead of a photograph.” In the end we might say that there was a person named Steve Jobs. He did some of these things, and given the person he was, he was quite capable and even likely to have done most of these other things. Here are the kind of enigmatic results this kind of personality has when it comes into contact with people in the workplace or in the social sphere. And the film does that in a way that makes you want to keep watching.
These are performances that are worth seeing, delivering dialogue that is worth hearing, in a film that tells a remarkable story. Take it as a fable if you don’t like the ambiguity of the facts. If you don’t like “talky” movies but love the visuals, this may not be the movie for you. If you like films that seem like plays, you’ll love this one. I did. I give it three Tennysons and half a Shakespeare.