It’s Versus Month here at BMD, and since the catalyst for that theme is two DC superheroes facing off, what better way to take it a step further than by bringing down the walls of the multiverse and pitting Steve Jobs against himself? In once corner, we have Joshua Michael Stern’s Jobs (originally known as jOBS for some reason), and in the other we have Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs, not to be confused with Steve Jobs: One Last Thing, Steve Jobs: Million Dollar Hippy, Steve Jobs: The Lost Interview, and Steve Jobs: The Man In The Machine, documentaries which came out in the last five years.
The man himself was a controversial figure, although undoubtedly iconic, and a head-to-head examination of different approaches to him makes for an interesting case study on how he’s viewed. It’s also buckets of fun to compare two films tackling similar topics, but when their subject was responsible for a great deal of modern culture and technology, it takes on an almost introspective quality. What do these films about the co-founder of Apple say about us and the way we tell stories?
ROUND 1: KUTCHER VS FASSBENDER
The first thing people tend to notice about a biopic is the who’s who of the retelling. The 2013 Jobs cast That ‘70s Shows star and Punk’d host Ashton Kutcher, and regardless of his other work, it was always going to be his public image that came to mind first, the way someone like Brad Pitt is a celebrity first and an actor second to the general public. Whatever the actual reasons for his casting though, Kutcher’s resemblance to the real life Jobs was almost uncanny.
Fassbender on the other hand, looks and sounds nothing like the man, and he wasn’t even the first choice to play him. Christian Bale was attached back when it was a Fincher film, and Fassbender’s American accent isn’t exactly the most consistent, but this round isn’t really about resemblance, or even the actors themselves. It’s about their performances and the how they embody each film’s version of Jobs (and what that version even is to begin with), because if you’re looking for a factual re-creation of events, then the aforementioned documentaries in the opening paragraph are probably more your speed.
The most surprising thing about Jobs, and the only thing that really works, is Ashton Kutcher. While the facial resemblance is undeniable (I only just realized it was him on the poster and not the real Steve Jobs), what elevates Kutcher’s performance is his non-stop oscillation between fiery, cutthroat asshole, and sympathetic, misunderstood genius. These are well-documented elements of Jobs’ personality, and Kutcher switches between them like a rogue tennis ball in an airplane bathroom. Each extreme is measured, from the genuine misanthropy in his eyes to his longing for creation, but the fact that there’s neither a middle ground nor a discernible trajectory along which the switch takes place is a fundamental problem. Not with the performance itself, since he’s doing exactly what he was hired to do, but there’s no getting around the fact that he’s the perfect embodiment of an inherently flawed narrative.
In one moment, he loathes his biological parents for having rejected him. In the next, he’s doing the same to his unborn daughter. Then he’s naming his first computer after her, and then ten years later, they’re living together happily. There’s no connective tissue between these ideas, and no discernible evolution for Kutcher to work through (at least none that we see in the final product), but one can’t deny that he brings the fire at every turn, so to speak. His Jobs is the right amount of narcissistic for a film that poises him as a ruthless conqueror, and by that I mean he comes off as an unhinged sociopath, but it isn’t just venom and self-absorption that Kutcher perfects. Right from the beginning, he sells and perhaps even over-sells Jobs’ walk, walking around like a self-conscious, barefoot Muppet as he barks orders at his peers and extemporizes his lofty dreams in the same breath. Wherever Kutcher’s Jobs exists, you get to see who or what is beneath him, and what aspirations lie above him. But what his actual level consists of, and what makes this hobbling paradox tick? That, unfortunately, remains a mystery.
Fassbender’s Jobs however, is a horse of a different colour. It’s almost unfair to compare them since they may as well be playing different characters (one in a film that’s much more adept at characterization, and, well… everything else) but compare them we shall. He has to go the extra mile for both the voice and the accent, sounding less like Steve Jobs and more like a very timid Michael Fassbender in the process, but even as he physically towers over the other actors, there’s something very small about him. His Jobs is neither a wide-eyed dreamer nor an on-edge rageaholic, but a man in a perpetual state of paradox. The reason his Jobs works more than Kutcher’s is because the film is interested in exploring what makes him tick, so much so that ‘What makes him tick?’ is the central premise of the movie, and Fassbender is one of the people trying to answer that question.
Where Kutcher is operatic, Fassbender is nakedly sincere. Where Jobs tries to have its cake and eat it too, demanding that we love and hate the man for the exact same reasons, Steve Jobs expects that same love and hatred to enter the fray as a swirl, each one poking through the narrative before ebbing swiftly away to make room for its counterpart. Fassbender has no need for middle grounds. He’s the very embodiment of those middle grounds, as he paints ego and vulnerability with the same brush, on the same canvas. While that certainly results in a lack of Kutcher’s more explosive and even inspirational moments, there isn’t a need for them either since it’s taken care of by the film’s propulsive narrative. Whether or not Fassbender raises his voice, the rising editing allows his Jobs to build and crescendo in ways that Kutcher was never afforded.
There’s no clear winner in this battle, but you can probably tell which way the war is going.
ROUND 2: HISTORICITY VS CONTEXT
It’s unfair to expect a biopic to be 100% historically accurate. In fact, I’d argue that creative liberties are usually a must when making a great film based on real events, though it’s difficult to separate reality from fiction in a case like this when the film’s subject died a mere four years before Steve Jobs, and just two before Jobs. What’s more, Steve Wozniak served as a consultant during the early stages of Boyle’s film, and he was shown an early draft of Sterns', which he hated. That being said, each film’s relationship to factual events is still important, even if adherence to detail isn’t.
As biopics go, the two films’ approaches may as well be polar opposites. While both start with a young, hip Steve Jobs and end with him old and grey, Jobs takes a more conventional approach, wherein the narrative is meant to encompass the entire time period in between. Conversely, Steve Jobs condenses its narrative and fits various aspects of Jobs’ life into three scenes, each taking place during the day of a new product launch. Arguments about his daughter, his conceits, and why he won’t thank the damn Apple II team each take place backstage as anticipation for his next appearance grows. In the process, what Steve Jobs is ‘about’ is a man on the precipice of change. He has a choice between changing the world and changing himself, constantly caught up in a battle between ego and genius, and the theatre corridors may as well be the recesses of his psyche.
Jobs, on the other hand? The movie is certainly about the titular entrepreneur, but what is it really ‘about’? If one were to separate fact from fiction completely, Steve Jobs becomes a story of a man at war with his own legacy, about his ruthlessness towards those he loves, and his willingness to make them collateral damage. Jobs becomes the drawn-out tale of a man lacking platitudes. Throw the facts back in there and things get even more complicated, since the film is part condemnation, poising him as irredeemable, and part hagiography, implying that he was the sole inventor of many of the products in question, instead of an aggregator and remixer of existing tech. Granted, Steve Jobs doesn’t get into the nitty-gritties of Jobs’ plagiarism (if you’d like to call it that), but it’s laser sharp in its focus, even if Boyle’s direction keeps falling on the wrong side of literal.
When it comes to contextualizing history in a way that makes the most narrative sense, Steve Jobs takes the cake. Sorry, Jobs.
ROUND 3: SORKIN VS SORKIN
Jobs is not an Aaron Sorkin film, so the comparison may seen unfair in concept (who cares, we all know which film is better), but the fact is, Sorkin and Ficher’s The Social Network needs to be a part of this conversation, and not because Sorking wrote the Boyle film either. See, when talking specifically about Gen Y (us ‘millennials’) and the cultural leaps we were a part of, social media and smartphones were the biggest changes to the way we do, well, pretty much everything. In fact, Facebook had become such a ubiquitous concept by 2010 that there was no way to see The Social Network as anything but ‘The Facebook movie’ until its actual release, upon which it became a goddamn time capsule. It’s the perfect encapsulation of communication in the 21st century, but thematically, it doesn’t have a thing to do with technology. Structurally, a hypothetical Steve Jobs movie of a similar nature ought to work, owing to the pained genius and his Silicon Valley startup at the center of each of them, and The Social Network seemed to automatically become the blueprint for the modern day biopic about revolutionary tech people. Jobs tries to do a lot of the same things, whether or not it means to, but it fails at them quite miserably.
There’s a spectacular scene about midway through The Social Network where Mark Zuckerberg gets the idea for the ‘relationship status’ – the kind of “Eureka!” moment that only comes about once every so often. Jobs tries to re-create this moment ad nauseam, but has little understanding of why it worked – or, if we’re assuming no inspiration whatsoever, it has no understanding of the moments themselves. Where Zuckerberg’s idea formed a major basis for modern social media, the context of the scene (one purely fictional, I’m sure) isn’t so much about Facebook itself as it is about youth culture. It taps in to the primal, sex-driven nature of human interaction, and traces the genesis of the moment in time where it changed for good. Not the creation of the ‘relationship status’ itself, but rather the cultural shift that followed, where the unspoken, the private or the implicit now became public knowledge, and allowed to us to recalibrate the way we interact.
Jobs tries to create the same heightened sense of euphoric achievement, only it does so when Steve Jobs decides the iMac should come in different colours.
Granted, it does it a whole bunch of other times too, like when he and Woz create the personal computer in their garage, but it fails to contextualize it in any way. Something like AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire on the other hand, manages to get to the root of why modern computing and social media are so important to so many by going back in time and showing us how they were born, but more importantly, the very personal and very human place that the ideas came from. Just like in The Social Network. In fact, the completely fictional H&CF actually does a better job of showing us the birth of the Macintosh than Jobs, revealing it like a deity surrounded by candles! But I digress. This is neither about H&CF nor The Social Network. The other film it's about, however, does some of these things just as well.
Facebook wasn’t actually invented as a means to satiate its creators ego, and the iPod wasn’t really created so that Jobs could make amends with his daughter, but that doesn’t matter. Steve Jobs' paradoxical view of creation is central to the film’s narrative. It starts out mutually exclusive. Binary. His apathy towards his daughter Lisa exists in direct opposition to his love for his other daughter Lisa, the Macintosh XL, and their connection is something he can’t admit for fear of straying from the purity of his invention. His refusal to thank the Apple II team goes hand-in-hand with his own company’s betrayal through flashback. The NeXT invention he creates is poised to fail, an empty box made by an empty man pushing away his closest confidants in order to infiltrate their ranks. Finally, at the iMac launch in 1998, he’s able to reconcile with his one true creation, admitting he’s "poorly made" while promising her the world in her pocket. The connection between the inventions and Jobs personal life is certifiable bullshit in real life, but in Sorkin and Boyle’s narrative, it’s absolutely vital.
In case you couldn’t tell, that’s who this final round goes to. While Jobs has an unhinged central performance to speak of, it exists only as an accidental vehicle for that performance. Steve Jobs on the other hand, is about a troubled man whose only recourse was to create tangible reflections of his psyche, making his products as incompatible as he was. One ends with the presentation of the finished iPod in front of the world. The other ends with the genesis of it, in front of Steve Jobs’ world.