When a Biopic Isn’t a True Story: The Functional Fabrication of ‘Steve Jobs’

There are fake biopics, and then there are manufactured biopics.
Steve Jobs Biopic
Universal Pictures
By  · Published on October 14th, 2015

There are fake biopics, like Walk Hard and Citizen Kane, and then there are manufactured biopics, which is what Steve Jobs is. Despite it working with basic biographical details regarding the life and career of its titular tech icon, it’s not really about Steve Jobs. As screenwriter Aaron Sorkin continues to defend, it’s a painting, not a photograph. But I think it’s actually two paintings on top of one another. There’s Sorkin and director Danny Boyle’s personally expressive portraiture of Jobs and then there’s a more abstract collage devoted to a broader theme of parentage.

I often wonder why Hollywood bothers with biopics. They’re always attacked over inaccuracies, so why not make more movies like Citizen Kane, which is close enough to be a biopic about one major figure — or an amalgamation of a few — to be accepted as such without inviting scrutiny from fact-checkers? Well, fewer people are going to see a movie about a guy implicitly modeled after Jobs than are going to see a movie where the character is at least named Jobs and is played by an actor attempting to look and sound like him. And they need the title to be the person’s name or they won’t remember that that’s the movie they’re interested in.

Steve Jobs does have a strong foundation in fact. The movie is based on the book by Walter Isaacson that Jobs not only authorized but actually heavily suggested – he basically had it commissioned. Many of the real people who are portrayed on screen, including Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen in the movie), John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), and Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg) were consultants on the script. Each of them defends the script as being a construct filled with made-up situations and dialogue but still also a recognizable treatment as far as the spirit of Jobs is concerned.

So actually this is a movie where maybe the story is true but the plot is not. It should be as obvious to audiences as Yoda being a puppet and, to keep closer to the genre (and relevant specifically to Jobs), Bob Dylan not literally being six different people over the course of his life, that all the conversations between Jobs (Michael Fassbender) and the important people in his life didn’t all actually happen right before three huge product launch events. We are supposed to be conscious of the structure, and it’s totally fitting that Fassbender doesn’t resemble Jobs because we shouldn’t ever think we’re watching reality or even a recreation of reality.

If you allow Steve Jobs to wash over you as mindless entertainment, then you’re likely to hate the sudden change in tone at the very end – or, if you’re a parent, maybe get a little teary-eyed at the emotional moment. But if you’re using your mind the whole time, you should instead appreciate that Boyle’s warm sentimentality breaks through, out of Sorkin’s cold wordiness in a metaphorical purpose of representing how the Jobs character is finally showing his heart after spending the rest of the movie only using his brain. Actually, you probably should also finally let go at the very end and feel something, too, maybe even cry, after spending the rest of the movie only using your brain.

Steve Jobs is primarily a movie about a father and daughter, and everything else is there to reinforce the theme of parenthood and parentage. The plot structure is a division of three sequences, tied to the launches of the Macintosh in 1984, the NeXT computer in 1988, and the iMac in 1998, but the movie is also notably divided into three main narrative arcs. One is focused on Jobs and his daughter, Lisa (Makenzie Moss, Ripley Sobo, and Perla Haney-Jardine), which is the literal parental story. Another deals with the relationship between Jobs and Wozniak and addresses the former’s parentage of the company and its products, as “Woz” asks Jobs about what he actually does besides simply be a patriarch in name only, and he requests that Jobs acknowledge his first “children” at Apple, namely the team behind their first computer. And the third is Jobs and Sculley, the latter a kind of father figure for the former and also the device through which the film addresses Jobs’s parents, both biological and adoptive.

There are more references to fathers in the script, quite a few to the Father, aka God, who is one time said to have “sent his son on a suicide mission,” but that’s okay because he made trees. Certainly, the connection between parent and creator is there, also with an allusion to God’s work, yet while it’s perfect there really was an Apple computer with the same name as Jobs’s daughter, Sorkin can’t force too much representational overlap between the products and the girl. In the first act, she’s sort of more aligned with the Apple II, the one Woz wants to be acknowledged but which Jobs wants to move on from, like an ex, and whatever is associated with her. Later, she’s sort of the NeXT, given what that machine truly was manipulatively meant for, but she’s that for her mother (Katherine Waterston) not her father. And in the final act, we really should have seen Jobs’s new children alongside the iMac even if just briefly.

Our appreciation of Steve Jobs can extend beyond what’s on the screen, too, thanks to the debate of whether or not Sorkin and Boyle are a good marriage, especially as far as their joint conception and development of the movie-as-child, or if Sorkin and David Fincher would have been better (Fincher was attached at one point then left, somewhat paralleling Jobs’s first, quickly rejecting adoptive parents), plus the discussions of what elements of the movie each of its parents was responsible for and who is more of the auteur here – neither, because like children this thing required dual parentage. None of this extra-textual material nor the actual text of the movie would be so interesting to consider with a straight and accurate telling of Jobs’s life (and we have the earlier Jobs to prove how shallow biopics are when they try to be so faithful). And none of us would see it if it wasn’t at least sort of based on his life.

The movie owes its audience and Jobs’s legacy, if not also his loved ones, some semblance of a biography, and they get a good one in the story that’s there to be found weaved through the structure if not accurately depicted as things happened. Fortunately, it has multiple layers, folded up together like five-year-old Lisa’s MacPaint drawing, which similarly consists of two layers of content. She calls it, as we should the movie, “an abstract.”

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.