Steve Jobs (the movie): The Triumph of Marketing
I have just watched Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs, the movie, loosely based on the popular authorized biography by Walter Isaacson. Now I’m jotting down some ideas to use in a blog post about it for Bookwitty. It’s good to put something down on paper immediately after you leave the theater to capture your feelings while you are still under the raw emotions stirred by a good movie. Bob Dylan’s powerful lyrics from the song A Shelter from the Storm, played as the closing credits were rolling up, are still reverberating in my mind:
I was burned out from exhaustion, buried in the hail,
Poisoned in the bushes an' blown out on the trail,
Hunted like a crocodile, ravaged in the corn.
"Come in," she said,
"I'll give you shelter from the storm."
I must remember to download it from iTunes this afternoon. I’m sitting at the common table at a Starbucks café, which you democratically share with other customers, using a MacBook Air to write my notes. In my pocket, I feel the occasional vibration of newly-received notifications from a number of apps or the arrival of an email on my iPhone. Since it’s more comfortable to read stuff leaning back, the iPad in my backpack will be used later to check out some technical info about the movie (such as who’s the stunningly beautiful actress who plays Lisa, Job’s daughter, as a 19-year-old girl, in the memorable final scene of the movie). A lot of my lifestyle – both work and play - includes and revolves around products that were created by Steve Jobs. By providing all these scintillating bicycles for the mind, he made a dent in the universe and changed our world forever.
I remember feeling equally emotional and inspired after watching the first Jobs movie - the one featuring Ashton Kushner - a couple of years ago. It dawns on me that, regarding Jobs, the magic is in the story itself, not in the telling. The mythological strands his life has acquired will defeat any bad script or acting, which, by the way, has not been the case at all with either of the versions I saw. He incarnates the proverbial archetype of the Hero. You can’t go wrong.
Having said that, the new version is in many ways superior. It specifically depicts Jobs, the myth: it’s not a traditional biopic like the first one. It does not aim at faithfully replicating the details of Jobs’s life and career in chronological order (Pixar is left altogether out of the movie, for example). The new film tries to answer a question put in the script to Jobs by a resentful Steve Wozniak (Seth Hogen), who begs him to give some credit for the growth and success of Apple to the team who worked so hard on the Apple II decades before – the first and only profitable product of Apple at the time. Jobs typically refuses to accommodate his request. In the movie, the ensuing dialogue takes place right before the public launch of the fist iMac: What do you do? You can’t write code, you are not an engineer, you are not a designer. I’m tired of playing Ringo to your John, complains Wozniak. To which Jobs placidly answers: I conduct the orchestra. True: Jobs is the marketer, the visionary, the creator or the hip products and the mythology behind Apple: he’s the storyteller!
Some of his most famous idiosyncrasies and quotes are depicted subtly or inserted naturally in the middle of a scene which is not specifically about it (like when, in the middle of a fight with Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston), the mother of his daughter Lisa, he takes off his shoes and washes his feet in the toilet bowl of a public restroom before a presentation; or when, asked by his forceful marketing manager if she should drop acid to finally understand his strategy, he sarcastically replies: It couldn't hurt.
The movie doesn’t refrain from showing the darker and maybe less known aspects of his personality: the egotistical, selfish, over controlling, arrogant, credit-stealing, reality distorting, poor parenting Steve Jobs is fully displayed on the screen, but each of the traits emerges spontaneously right in the middle of a dialogue, as a complementary detail or commentary, only hinting at the fact, suggesting, never claiming this is how things really happened. Steve Jobs is one of the strongest brands ever created (self-created, I must say) and we tend to discount as much as we can, so we can carry on loving it.
His marketing ideas are crystal clear. It’s not necessarily about what you produce, but how you get customers to love it after they see it, mainly by constructing a powerful narrative to support your launch. And Jobs was masterful at that. Take the two iconic marketing campaigns shown in the movie: the 1884 TV advertisement, based on the famous book by George Orwell, warning against the danger of world domination by IBM if the Macintosh did not come to life (see video clip below); and his Think Different campaign, showing overachievers in different areas of human accomplishments (science, art, sports, music, dance). Jobs bent the English grammar to prove his point: as an adverb, language purists wanted it to be DIFFERENTLY. As a marketer and communicator, he understood that the media is the message, and never changed it.
The movie itself flaunts great writing (by Aaron Sorkin), superb acting, and a perfect structure, which is constant drawing parallels between the success and charisma of Jobs as a very likeable public persona and his tyrannical perfectionism as a pro, his ruthless behavior towards colleagues and friends, and the insensitive and brutal relationship he keeps for many years with his daughter, Lisa, and her mother, Chrisann. In one of the best lines of the movie, a disappointed Wozniak (again) warns him, you know, it doesn’t need to be binary. You can be gifted and decent at the same time.
The dialogue throughout the movie is fast, furious and funny. Hilarious at times: Lisa, in a bout of anger, yells at her father saying that, despite his love of Bob Dylan, his appreciation of the Bauhaus movement and his claims that sophistication means simplicity, he could not help but design a machine - the new iMac (the egg-shaped transparent one in a bluish color that came out in 1998) - which looks nothing more than Judy Jetson’s easy-bake oven. I almost peed my pants.
In addition to the great job of Seth Rogen as Steve Wozniak, Kate Winslet (as the ever-supportive marketing manager Joanna Hoffman), Jeff Daniels (as John Sculley), and Michael Stuhlbarg (as Andy Hertzfeld) are all allowed to shine, showcasing their great acting talent in long and important scenes with the leading actor.
Michael Fassbender, for his part, boasts a powerhouse performance, the best of his career so far. Exhibiting an impressive range, present in virtually all the scenes of the 2 – hour long movie, he plays such a plausibe and likable Jobs, that sometimes we forget he is an actor. In the heartbreaking scene in which he tries to patch things up with Lisa, all the character can say to counteract his daughter’s fair accusations is: I’m poorly made, he apologizes.
And we all forgive him.