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“Steve Jobs” Is a Magnificent Piece of Consumerist Propaganda

The Apple chairman as corporate tyrant and consumer saint

Universal Pictures

Steve Jobs is not a biopic, screenwriter Aaron Sorkin recently claimed on The Daily Show. In his script, the Apple founder’s formative moments are not life events, but product launches. Divided into three scenes—the backstage preparations for the unveiling of the Macintosh personal computer in 1984, the debut of the ill-fated NeXT computer in 1988, and the introduction of the iMac in 1998—the film takes place in nearly real time. The result is A Christmas Carol for technocrats, a morality play in which figures from Jobs’ past appear as supplicants, begging a venal, cruel, imperious, charming, rich man to do the right thing.

Often, the right thing amounts to simple respect, something Steve Jobs, played by Michael Fassbender, invariably withholds. The key question of the film is whether Jobs will acknowledge the paternity of his daughter, Lisa, an act which will be less a kindness or a duty in this film’s skewed morality, than an opportunity to redeem Jobs’ own character. Here, Jobs is not just a corporate tyrant, a latter-day robber baron in mock turtleneck and dad jeans, but a “tyrant saint.”

The halo of martyrdom rests uneasily on Jobs’ head, but there it is all the same. The movie may not end with the CEO’s death, but it does show him smiling beatifically, winking out of view under the glare of stage-lights. This is the immortality reserved for Jobs, as he ascends to the great keynote presentation in the sky.

Biopic or not, Steve Jobs, like every movie of its type, is doomed to swim in the same waters, relentlessly parsed for deviations from reality and battled over by Jobs’ former colleagues, heirs, industry acolytes, Apple fanboys, lawyers, and armchair epistemologists. Perhaps this is the reason the movie exists—to re-catalyze an overworked cultural dispute that essentially boils down to one proposition: Steve Jobs was an asshole, but he made you love his technology more than any human interaction.

As a piece of consumerist propaganda, and one more entry in the revisionist canon, Steve Jobs is magnificent. Capably shot, well acted (notwithstanding Kate Winslet’s shape-shifting accent), its score propulsive, if a little too insistent, it’s a finely crafted piece of work. But as a film, I found it nearly insufferable. It brought to mind a Walter Kirn review of Solar, a novel by Ian McEwan, which Kirn called “a book so good—so ingeniously designed, irreproachably high-minded and skillfully brought off—that it’s actually quite bad. Instead of being awful yet absorbing, it’s impeccable yet numbing, achieving the sort of superbly wrought inertia of a Romanesque cathedral. There’s so little wrong with it that there’s nothing particularly right about it, either. It’s impressive to behold but something of a virtuous pain to read.”

I felt much the same way sitting through Steve Jobs, which arrives at a rather tired moment for self-absorbed male anti-heroes. Perhaps this is why the question of whether Jobs was a “genius,” the film’s other main concern besides Lisa’s paternity, feels so meaningless and whittled down. In an already oft-quoted scene, Steve Wozniak, played by Seth Rogen, whose own engineering genius is now an accepted part of industry lore, asks why he always sees the g-word applied to Jobs. As the fictional Woz explains, Jobs isn’t a programmer, he isn’t an engineer, he even isn’t a designer. “Just what do you do?” he asks, imploringly.

“I play the orchestra,” Jobs replies, standing in an orchestra pit. The line is a callback to one from a few minutes earlier, when Jobs compared himself to a conductor, and it very well may be revealing of Jobs’ particular talent—controlling and manipulating others to his own ends. But this tidy riposte, telegraphed from miles out, comes across less like a demonstration of greatness than the buoying self-delusion of a noted narcissist. Jobs must be seen as an orchestra conductor, a fabulous showman marshaling the creative forces of his underlings, because otherwise his claim to be “changing the world” simply means getting lots of people to buy his brand of computers.

In its accidental way, scenes like this one also show how thoroughly creative work has been yoked to the service of commerce, down to the lavishly gilded, cathedral-like halls that serve as set dressing for Jobs’ product launch-cum-stage shows. Modeled after grand music auditoriums, these buildings now host what passes for momentous events in our shared culture: the introduction of new gadgets. With frequent references to Bob Dylan, and Leonardo Da Vinci, Steve Jobs also reflects the strange kind of insecurity that surrounds Jobs worshippers. It’s as if to call Jobs what he was—an accomplished CEO whose brutal bedside manner and lack of generosity put him in the sub-Carnegie class—would dent the foundation of a shakily constructed myth.

Jobs wasn’t an artist but styled himself like one. He did more than anyone else to advance the notion that computers could be art objects, even if they were designed in Cupertino and mass-produced in miserable conditions in Chinese factories. This post-Warholian ideal has been an essential part of Silicon Valley image management, part of the industry’s broader subsumption of counter-cultural ideals (“Think Different”) into cyber-cultural utopianism. Where Steve Jobs succeeds then is in following this well-paved ideological runway, as it unites two strains of the American religion — celebrity worship and consumerism—in one slick package. That happened to Steve Jobs’ chief accomplishment as well: his greatest product was himself.