Steve JobsSteve-Jobs-Biography-Swells-to-656-2

  • Author:  Walter Isaacson
  • Published:  2011
  • Publisher:  Simon & Schuster
  • Pages:  630
  • First Line:  “When Paul Jobs was mustered out of the Coast Guard after World War II, he made a wager with his crewmates.”
  • Last Lines:  “He fell silent for a very long time.  ‘But on the other hand, perhaps [death] is like an on-off switch.’ he said.  ‘Click!  And you’re gone.’  Then he paused again and smiled slightly.  ‘Maybe that’s why I never liked to put on-off switches on Apple devices.’”
  • Film Version:  2015  (****)
  • First Read:  late 2020

The Book:

Given the way I interact with the world, my, at times, deliberate ignorance of aspects of pop culture, the way I loathe certain things (for years my axis of evil was Walmart, Microsoft and the Yankees but then Gates decided to rid the world of malaria and things changed and now it’s Walmart, Amazon and the Yankees), people are often surprised to find that I can have intense loyalty to a brand.  I worded that very specifically.  I wouldn’t call it brand loyalty.  I don’t wear Apple merchandise, I don’t follow Honda on Twitter (I don’t “follow” anyone on Twitter because I’m not on Twitter though I check Mark Harris everyday) and there is no way I would argue against those who think Nike is evil.  But my loyalty in purchasing products from all three of those companies dates back to the 80s now and with good reason.  They make products that work for me and I buy the next one and it still works for me and I like to have things I know will work.  It’s the same way at a restaurant.  I order Fettuccine Alfredo at the Spaghetti Factory (where I have been eating since the 80s) because I love it.  I may love other things on their menu but I don’t want to take the chance on something else that won’t be as good when I know how much I love their fettuccine and potentially screw up my dinner.

My first computer wasn’t mine; it belonged to the whole family.  It was an Apple II+ and we bought it in July of 1982.  Over the next decade I spent countless, countless hours playing Wizardry and Lode Runner, typing lists of baseball statistics and, starting in 1989, even keeping track of the movies I had seen.  My father got a MacIntosh fairly early on at work (mid 80s) and during the summer, when he wasn’t teaching, he would bring it home for stretches and we would use applications like MacPaint (and my drawings weren’t much better than that of Lisa Brennan-Jobs in the film) and eventually around 1991 we got a Mac for the family (and Tetris became an intense part of my life).  The following year, when we sold our house in California, the difference between that house and the one we bought in Oregon (much bigger but also less expensive) allowed my parents to give all five of us a Mac which was perfect because I was headed off to college and needed a computer.  That was the first computer that was just mine.  Including the MacBook I got from my old job that they let me keep when I left, I’m on my sixth Mac and I’m getting a new Mac at work on Monday.

All of that is a very long way around to talking about this book.  I’m not interested in business, I’m not interested in biography and I’m not interested in technology.  “Great men” don’t interest me.  This book was a huge seller when it was released (I know because I was working at a bookstore), less than three weeks after Jobs died but I didn’t read it until late 2020.  Yet, I found myself riveted.  Not because of Jobs’ life, which was interesting and certainly not because I have any admiration for him (clearly flawed as a person and his real genius lay in knowing how to present things rather than create them).  So why did I find this book so riveting?  Because this is so much a part of my world.  As I just wrote, Apple computers has been a constant part of my life since I was seven years old.  And I love their products.  My MacBook is twelve years old which is beyond ancient in the computer world but I can use it to play movies on my left while I work on this computer.  My son has two iPads because he wore the first one out and he loves them.  Other than jobs where I was forced to do otherwise (and my current job isn’t one of them obviously), I have used an Apple my entire life.  They work and I like them.  Fuck Windows.  So this was the story of how all these products (even my old iPod, sitting in a box somewhere, unused now because my iPhone (the first of three so far) made it irrelevant) came to be in my apartment and it was riveting.  And I knew other parts as well.  The story intersects with HP (where my brother and sister-in-law met and my wife used to work) and Reed College (“Jobs decided to quit classes and quit paying tuition and just audit the classes he was interested in and the dean was fine with it” I said to Veronica before explaining what school it was; “of course it was Reed” she replied).  It’s very well told and is never hard to follow.  I thought I would read it in parts, being bored, but I couldn’t put it down and plowed straight through it.  A great biography of an interesting (and honestly very strange) man and one that had me interested far more than I ever would have thought.

steve_jobsThe Film:

How do you get the measure of a man on film?  The traditional Hollywood way of doing it has been to make a Biopic – a film that covers their entire life, often using a particular moment to look back at the life.  That was certainly the approach of the terrible 2013 film Jobs which looked at Steve Jobs life but did it in that old boring way (a way that has rarely worked with the exception of Yankee Doodle Dandy) and was done with sub-par talent across the board.  This film, of course, has all the talent, lead by an Oscar-winning screenwriter and an Oscar-winning director and stacked to the brim with quality actors.  You could try to argue that writer Aaron Sorkin had won his Oscar for that old tried and true Biopic method but Sorkin is more interested in the story arc rather than the life arc which is why The Social Network just covered the time involved in the creation of Facebook and not the whole life.  He gets more inventive here, essentially writing a three act play covering three important moments in the life of Steve Jobs.

The more important thing is that by abandoning the traditional story-telling of going through all the events and structuring the film around these three moments in Jobs’ life and the way he interacts with the various people who are at these events (that some of these people weren’t at these events is irrelevant to the film – Sorkin and Boyle aren’t making a documentary but are using this film to get at the measure of the man himself and the way they structure it allows for a reasonable discussion of past events that cover other major aspects of his biography in dialogue that is natural in the moment and doesn’t feel strained) to show who he was as a man and who he was as a visionary.  That Jobs was a visionary is really not something that is in doubt.  He wasn’t an engineer, he wasn’t a programmer, he wasn’t a designer.  He, as he puts it, “plays the orchestra”, figuring out how to get all the individual musicians to do their piece to make for a greater whole.  Jobs understood what people wanted and he understood how to get people what they wanted.  It’s true that sometimes he was very wrong about that and there’s no question that his methods of getting there were often terrible, that his success as a human being was far below his success as a businessman.  Joanna Hoffman, a trusted associate of Jobs who moved with him from company to company and thus is there to act as his conscience (a conscience he ignores as much in the film as he did in real life) makes that desperately clear to him late in the film while imploring him to talk to his daughter: “I love you, Steve. You know how much. I love that you don’t care how much money a person makes; you care what they make. But what you make isn’t supposed to be the best part of you. When you’re a father… that’s what’s supposed to be the best part of you.”

Part of the brilliance of this film is the set-up.  The film is structured around three events (and because this movie deals with technology as it has changed, the filmmakers brilliantly filmed the three parts in three different ways: 16mm, 35mm and digital).  Because of the dialogue (which is fantastic), we never are unclear about who anyone is or what they do and we understand the full history of what is going on.  Hell, I learned from this film.  Because my father had a Mac in his office early on and because I would later have several (see below), I never realized that the original MacIntosh was considered a failure in the business world.

This movie, in some ways, is the perfect follow-up to The Social Network.  Both films deal with people who insulate themselves from the world using technology, men who had visions that really did change the world.  Both of them are brilliantly acted by their leads.  The major difference (aside from the structure, of course) is that this film is about a man who wants to change the world and who pushes away the people who love and support him because he, as he puts it in the brilliant final scene, is poorly made and the previous film was about a man who manages to change the world almost out of revenge and pushes away everyone because he’s an asshole.

Now we come to that final scene.  You always want to find character growth.  In The Social Network there wasn’t any because he’s an asshole.  There he is at the end, alone, wondering if this person who he pushed away will friend him.  Here, we find a man who has been unable to admit when he is wrong, who distorts reality around him, who pushes away his daughter.  But he understands by the end that he has to fix that.  So we get that great scene on the roof with the hints of what the future will bring and he reaches out to her and says things he should have said years before.  And then, with that brilliant song playing (“We Grew Up at Midnight”) they go together to watch the changing of the world and that brilliant ad campaign.  And there in the middle of the campaign is her.  And he shares with her how much she has meant to him, something he hasn’t been able to do because he is, in fact, poorly made.  And then, after a third of the film that ended with “Ladies and gentlemen, John Sculley,” and a third that ended with “Ladies and gentlemen, …” we finally got that end note and ladies and gentlemen, Steve Jobs.  He’s a man, take him for all in all.  We are unlikely to see his like again.

The Adaptation:

Sorkin (who is actually mentioned once because he was supposed to help Jobs write a speech and then never did) doesn’t adapt the book.  What he does is take three moments in Jobs’ life, place all the important people he wanted in the film at the events whether they were there or not (for instance, John Sculley wasn’t at either the 1988 or 1998 events because after Jobs got fired from Apple he never spoke to Sculley again) and have them communicate in such a way that it gives us a hell of a lot of information from the book in an indirect way.  The argument with Woz, for instance, before the NeXT launch, never happened.  But the way Sorkin writes it, it allows him to bring in aspects from all across the Jobs book and make them clear and concise without making it seem like straining to impart narrative to us.  The more I watch the film, the more it seems to me that it’s a brilliant bit of screenwriting.  I don’t talk much above about the acting in the film (which is fantastic – Fassbender and Winslet are the stars and they are incredible but that shouldn’t discount the very strong supporting performances from Jeff Daniels, Michael Stuhlbarg and Seth Rogen (god I hate writing that)) but it works in conjunction with Sorkin’s strong dialogue (“Fix it.”  “I can’t.”  “Who’s the person who can?”  “I’m the person who can and I can’t.”).  We also get a few flashback scenes (like the brilliant one where Sculley pushes Jobs out at Apple) that add to the depth of what we are seeing.