Steve Jobs – the biopic, and the slippery nature of biography

The other evening I was lucky enough to attend a UK preview of the biopic ‘Steve Jobs’. It was a marketing event preview and the cinema was absolutely full. As the film ended the final shots were accompanied by the dramatic yet plaintive Maccabees’ song ‘Grew Up At Midnight’ and there was a palpable stillness about the audience as the credits began to roll. It was strange as the film ended at what is considered a successful point in Steve Jobs’ life and long before he died. Of course, it is possible that many in the audience were sitting there recalling those painful photos and video footage showing the terminally ill, emaciated Steve Jobs. It is also possible they were surprised by such a negative portrayal of Jobs, or they were just plain confused (if they knew anything about Jobs) by the audacious inventiveness of the script.

Perhaps four years after his death is too soon for a considered, truly insightful biography let alone a Hollywood biopic as most of the protagonists are still living and Jobs’ life was most definitely controversial. This film is based (rather loosely) on the Walter Isaacson biography which I read in the summer. The biography was not popular with the fans, but it was the ‘official’ one written at Jobs’ behest with a fair amount of access to some of the key players. However, as with any biography there is never a full picture. How can there be? No human beings have complete recall and as psychologists have shown we readily rewrite our memories to suit our own story. I think Steve Jobs knew more than most about contemporary myth-making. Isaacson tells us that Steve Jobs’ colleagues at Apple often referred to Jobs’ “reality distortion field”. It is as if by sheer force of will he projected his reality and attempted to pull everyone into it.

Isaacson’s book has over 600 pages to get to grips with his complex, mercurial subject, but the Danny Boyle/Aaron Sorkin film has only a couple of hours to take a pinch of Jobs and grind it into a spicy biopic. What are we looking for? A drama that distils the essence of such a life. A tall order to achieve when that somebody was at the centre of so much technological excitement, yet shots of fingers at keyboards and beige plastic boxes isn’t that interesting. So, as with real life, it’s the people, the business and personal relationships that are the drama. You may love your phone, but it’s still just an iPod, a phone and an Internet communication device! A means of connecting with other humans. It’s the human interaction that matters.

Steve-Jobs-2007-iPhone-launch

The film gives us an interpretation of one facet of Steve Jobs by focussing on the behind the scenes, backstage preparations for three different famous product launches. Sorkin, who wrote the screenplay, didn’t just read Isaacson, but also interviewed and re-interviewed some of the major players. We are shown taut often confrontational adult interactions between Jobs and his colleagues whilst a continuous family thread relates Jobs’ difficult and awkward dealings with his eldest daughter, Lisa. There are plenty of ‘walk and talk’ scenes, frequent opening and closing of doors and shots of long corridors. One sequence shows a corridor as if it was a screen showing video footage. Perhaps these are all visual signifiers for opportunities taken or not taken and the long, long hard road to success. The film gives us a one-sided, less than pleasant Steve Jobs provoking fear and confrontation in colleagues, but sadly does not give us any hint of an inspired, passionate, creative dreamer. Remember this is a dramatised retelling of a controversial life and apparently many of the scenes are less about biography and more about dramatic film-making. And, this is the major problem for biopics the sacrifice of authenticity in order to make a watchable movie.

Altogether, I think it’s worth seeing, but I think something is missing. I can’t explain why, but perhaps it is something to do with that driven quality that true game-changers have which, even when played by a star like Michael Fassbender, can’t be captured. Persistent, energetic, awkward, obsessive, determined, supremely secure in one’s own judgment and ability may not make for the most charming individual, but appear to be essential to the mix for those who wish to make an impression on history. There are plenty of videos on YouTube showing the real Steve Jobs from about 1980 onwards. Each one is his version of himself for that moment. Who are we, the watching public, to know or understand his life simply by owning an Apple product? Nobodies. We read biographies and watch biopics to find out more, but we should remember not all the players contributed and those that did may not agree with any subsequent reinterpretation of their memories by authors, directors or screenwriters – biography is a very, very slippery affair. Final thought . . . not really possible to do justice to such a life in just two hours.