Who cares if the Apple co-founder was a volatile man who was difficult to deal with? Sometimes that’s the price of genius
Can a great man be a good man? This is the question posed by the trailer for Steve Jobs, a biopic of the late co-founder of the world’s most valuable company (and, the film suggests, not always a good man).
The film is (extremely) loosely based on Walter Isaacson’s 2011 biography of Jobs, written over two years with the cooperation of Jobs himself and hurriedly published in the wake of his death. Aaron Sorkin, who wrote the screenplay, likened the worldwide outpouring of grief in the wake of his death to that following John Lennon’s murder.
The plot revolves around the minutes before three major product launches in 1984, 1988 and 1998, but its driving force is an unflinching examination of Jobs’ relationship with his first daughter Lisa, whom he denied the paternity of for many years.
“I’m not your father,” he tells her, before stalking off to bully and threaten his staff into adhering to his exacting high standards, from quite literally taking the shirt of an unsuspecting man’s back so that Jobs could pull a floppy disc from its breast pocket, to snarling at former fellow co-founder Steve Wozniak, ”You’re gonna have a stroke, little buddy.”
None of this, unless you’ve been living under a rock, is exactly new information. The notoriously secretive Apple, which is extremely protective of Jobs’ legacy, has rallied against Sorkin and Danny Boyle’s biopic for years, with chief executive Tim Cook describing it as “opportunistic”and chief design officer Jony Ive saying he didn’t “recognise that man at all. It’s heartbreaking”.
But it’s not just the company’s top brass who have turned their backs on the project. Steve Jobs made a paltry $7.3 million (£4.8m) during its US opening weekend, ahead of its UK release on November 13, and has only taken around $16 million since the end of October, despite costing around $30 million to make.
Michael Fassbender, who plays the titular role, by his own admission doesn’t “look anything like him”, with Apple observers criticising the plot’s many factual inaccuracies and how some characters,particularly in the case of Wozniak, have undergone full personality overhauls.
Jobs was, by all accounts, one of the rarest kind of people insofar as he was uncompromising in his obsessions, ruthless to the point of cruelty when it came to getting his own way, which the film wrongly attributes to the lack of control he felt at being put up for adoption as a child (Jobs himself said knowing he was adopted meant he “always felt special”). A people-pleaser he was not.
The question in my mind is not so much whether it’s possible to be decent and gifted at the same time, as Wozniak tersely tells Jobs it is, but rather, who cares? Jobs was a gifted leader and marketer, and his tenacity and dedication to his work should be praised, rather than vilified. It should also be noted that he reconciled with Lisa and apologised many times for his behaviour, which is more than many other children of absent fathers get.
The most rewarding teachers are often the ones who are hardest on you, as this year’s academy award-winning Whiplash demonstrated so beautifully. Jobs, volatile though he may have been, knew how to get results, whether that was through cajoling, manipulating or outright insulting. He once told Ive he was “really vain…You just want people to like you.” “I was terribly cross,” recalled Ive, “Because I knew he was right.”
The desperate desire for acceptance many of us feel so acutely is exactly that, a vanity. Jobs’ complete disregard for the opinions, and on occasion, feelings of others freed him from the crushing weight of expectation and consequent risk of disappointment to focus with a laser-like precision on exactly what he wanted, in his own words, “to make a ding in the universe”.
Yet there is no doubt Jobs was admired, revered and deeply loved, as the glowing testimonials of those who knew him best show. It is nice to be important, but it’s more important to be nice, or so the saying goes. Maybe it’s more important to recognise that not being a people-pleaser is nothing to be ashamed of.