Steve Jobs’s legacy as a creative tour de force, a once in a decade genius who transformed the way we see the world, is on full display in Steve Jobs, the Danny Boyle-directed, Aaron Sorkin-penned film out Friday.
So is his rumored ability to terrorize and wound those who knew him best. The movie, which is divided into three acts, each depicting the countdown before a crucial product launch – namely the Macintosh in 1984, the NeXT Computer in 1988 and the iMac in 1998 – is studded with exchanges highlighting the expansive range of Jobs's cruelty, which can be casual, calculated, self-righteous and manipulative, sometimes all at once. Throughout much of the 122 minute runtime, Michael Fassbender, as Jobs, withholds credit, denies responsibility, physically and emotionally threatens those around him and demands that everyone in his orbit bend to his will.
That said, this isn’t a portrait of a monster. Sorkin’s script presents Jobs’s connection with his eldest daughter Lisa – with whom he had a complicated relationship, initially denying her paternity – as the beating heart beneath the layers of warts. Near the end of the film, as Jobs’s attempts to forge reconciliation over a lifetime of hurt, he turns to her and, for the first time, admits his ability to err. “I am poorly made,” he says, moments before unveiling the iMac, an expertly made product that would go on to change the future of personal computing.
It’s a touching moment, and the movie ends on a bittersweet but triumphant note. It also encapsulates what, for me, at least, was the movie’s central thesis: that to extract what made Jobs poorly made would remove much of his genius.
Related: Steve Jobs: An Extraordinary Career
Throughout the film, Jobs’s abrasiveness doubles as way to motivate and manipulate desired actions from others; his blinders to the emotional needs of those around him provide focus; his unwavering belief in his ability and achievement propels him forward after failure. He takes these prickly, unattractive, self-aggrandizing and selfish characteristics and uses them to get results. “You’re products are better than you are, man,” Apple co-founder Steve ‘Woz’ Wozniak (Seth Rogen) tells Jobs after he refuses, again, to acknowledge his contributions at Apple. “That’s the point, man,” Jobs sneers back.
In this worldview, decency is a necessary causality of Jobs’s soaring accomplishment. His deep personal failings and his genius are two sides of the same coin.
It's interesting, then, that Boyle doesn’t subscribe to this belief at all.
"It's not binary – you can be decent and gifted at the same time.”
Wozniak says the above quote after a confrontation with Jobs late in the film. “I do believe that,” Boyle tells Entrepreneur. “You do not have to behave like this. It’s your flaws that make you behave like that, it’s not that the process has to be like that.”
He points to Woz and Seth Rogen, a computer and comic genius, respectively, as examples of men who inhabit both traits.
But what about the men and women who, to quote Sorkin’s script, must “play the orchestra?" Those who greatness is inseparable from the ability to set exacting standards, motivate A performances from others, overcome barriers and drown out opposition in pursuit of an ever moving target.
Is it possible, in other words, to lead and shape a collective vision as successfully as Jobs was able to do without his ruthlessness? Can a gentler approach be as effective? “I think so. I think there is a way to do that,” says Boyle. “Those who are addicted to that type of behavior would say there isn’t, but I direct in a very harmonious way.”
It’s a great example; a director’s success also hinges on his or her ability to play the orchestra. In Hollywood, the talented but difficult auteur has become a common trope (David Fincher, David O. Russell and James Cameron immediately come to mind). But the idea it promotes – namely, that talent and decency cannot coexist -- simply isn’t true, says Boyle.
When he directs, he is manipulative. But it is manipulation leached of any maliciousness. “I am occasionally cunning in a way that isn’t quite honest, to get some of the things you need from the film, but it’s not a cruel cunningness," he says. "It’s not at somebody’s expense. It doesn’t hurt people. It doesn’t damage people.”
But for all his insistence that genius and decency are not binary– and if 15 minutes can be any indication, Boyle is living proof – he admits that there can be an enormous upside to championing yourself and your vision at the expense of humbleness, complete honesty and the generosity required to entertain multiple viewpoints.
Steve Jobs was famously self-aggrandizing. In the movie, there is a line where Jobs labels the launch of the Macintosh and the Allies winning the war as “the two most significant events in the twentieth century.” Boyle says he understands these dramatic flourishes. "Hopefully in a more sympathetic way, I do that as well. I exaggerate. When you are trying to gather all these people together to tell a story, you say stupid stuff sometimes. You can see that people do believe it, and that’s good, because they’ll work harder for you to get there."
This is where removing the ego from the genius becomes a complicated procedure. Jobs's role as a "great mythologizer [and] a great salesman" cemented his legacy. "The people we worked on the film with, people like Woz, they are still very much in his orbit. Their lives are defined in relationship to him. He is the planet and they are in the gravitational force field that it creates.”
Could Jobs have been as effective at executing his vision if he'd been a gentler, kinder more emotionally available man? Boyle says it's possible. But the movie, I think, ultimately says otherwise.