Steve Jobs Doesn’t Understand Steve Jobs

He wasn’t just a cold-hearted marketing genius. He was something more eccentric—and troubling.

Michael Fassbender portrays the pioneering founder of Apple in Steve Jobs.

Photo illustration by Slate. Left: Courtesy 2015 Universal Studios. All Rights Reserved. Right: Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Steve Jobs, the movie, is a gripping character study about a fascinating figure. It manages, against the odds, to make us care about its icy-hearted antihero, whose capacity to inspire a crowd is matched only by his capacity to wound those who love him. It appears set to light up box offices, captivate audiences, and win awards. In the process, it will remold society’s memory of the legendary Apple co-founder, much as The Social Network sculpted our view of Mark Zuckerberg.

But the Steve Jobs that we meet in this movie, compelling as he is, never quite comes off like the real man on whom he’s based. The result is a film that feels not just inaccurate—that’s inevitable—but inaccurate in a way that’s crucial to understanding what the real Jobs stood for. In its zeal to uncover the coldness at the core of a beloved icon, it misses something at once more endearing and more troubling about his story and the world he helped to shape.

The plot, which hinges on three separate product launches from 1984 to 1998, is ostensibly driven by Jobs’ quest to market the personal computer to the masses. On the surface, Steve Jobs is a movie about whether its protagonist can overcome the ponderous forces of convention, indifference, and incompetence to make an iconic product that the world will embrace.

Of course, we all know that Jobs did that. And so, to ward off the anticlimax that so often dogs biopics, the movie introduces a subplot whose outcome is less certain. Aaron Sorkin’s deft and multilayered script revolves around a far more personal quest—one in which Jobs is not the subject but the object. In this deeper story, which revolves around Jobs’ personal relationships, Jobs is a sort of reverse Tin Man: He shows no interest in obtaining a heart, but the people around him are determined to find one in him. It’s the story of a man who can’t love, but might yet learn to, and therein find redemption.

The emotional, moral, and dramatic stakes in Steve Jobs, then, have surprisingly little to do with Jobs’ work, and still less so with its impact on society. The question the movie asks instead is: To what extent did Jobs’ success as a businessman depend on his failings as a person? Put another way, could Jobs achieve greatness while at the same time becoming—if only slightly, and only to the one person who needs him most—less of an asshole?

Those are perfectly fine stakes for a film about a man who is noteworthy both for making iconic products and for being an asshole. And, again, they make for a very compelling movie. Steve Jobs is passionately acted, beautifully shot, and creatively told. The script’s tight focus on one highly dramatic aspect of Jobs’ personal life—his relationship with his daughter, whom he fathered out of wedlock and for years refused to acknowledge—makes the film eminently watchable, and skirts the didactic clichés of the biopic form. This is not a movie that only a techie can love.

But that same rigorous focus, compounded by one deeply unfortunate casting choice, prevents the film from tackling what made Jobs not merely an interesting figure, but an important one. Jobs wasn’t just noteworthy for achieving greatness and being a jerk. He was also noteworthy for much broader reasons: because his products have changed how we live, because he and his company stand as the preeminent icons of Silicon Valley, and because they personify the global zeitgeist in the early 21st century. How Jobs achieved that, and what lessons we might take from it—whether salutary or cautionary—the movie doesn’t begin to explore.

The unfortunate casting choice is that of Michael Fassbender in the titular role. He’s a virtuosic actor, and he plays his part with depth and intensity. And to be fair, that part gets much right about the man who sparked the personal computing revolution and built Apple into the world’s most valuable company.

Fassbender’s Jobs is, to use a cliché that feels unusually apt here, a study in contradictions. He’s a marketing wizard and a born showman. But he’s as cold and Machiavellian behind the curtain as he is charismatic in front of it. He’s at once a visionary and a control freak: a big-picture thinker who obsesses over the smallest details. He possesses a rare gift for understanding people, but only in the aggregate. As individuals, they tend to bore him, at best. At worst—that is, when they need him or love him—they repulse him.

All of which adds up to a complex and multifaceted character, for which Fassbender and Sorkin and director Danny Boyle might fairly win a bevy of industry awards. Their Jobs ranks alongside Wall Street’s Gordon Gekko and The Dark Knight’s Bruce Wayne as an archetypal corporate antihero whose arrogance and overweening ambition is cloaked in sharply pressed collars and dubious claims that their ends justify the means.

The problem is, the real Jobs was no Gordon Gekko or Bruce Wayne. He was, by most accounts, including the Walter Isaacson biography from which Sorkin’s script was adapted, something even more confounding: a shaggy, Zen-seeking, fruitarian vegan who remained utterly convinced that he was a rebel and an artist even as he connived and elbowed his way to the pinnacle of the corporate world.

Isaacson’s biography provided the pop-psychological source material from which the movie drew its narrative about the emotionally stunted adoptee with a hero complex and abandonment issues. But, more importantly, it convincingly situated Jobs’ character and ideals in the distinctive cultural ferment of Silicon Valley in the 1960s and ’70s. As Isaacson recalls, Jobs came of age at a time when the likes of Stewart Brand, Richard Brautigan, and Timothy Leary were embracing technology as a tool—not of corporate power, but of personal liberation. He chose crunchy Reed College over Stanford and UC–Berkeley, devoured New Age philosophy, and traveled to India to find his purpose. As inventors, he and his Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak drew inspiration from the phone “phreakers” who stuck it to the big telecoms by hacking the system for making long-distance and international calls. They saw the power that IBM’s computers gave to capitalists and vowed to put it in the hands of artists, educators, and children. And they were always, at heart, geeks, even after they became tycoons.

There are a few fleeting nods to this goofy, rebellious side of Jobs in the script. He admires Alan Turing and Bob Dylan, if only to the extent that he thinks they can help him sell more computers. (He abruptly drops Turing from an advertising montage when a journalist fails to recognize the British code-breaker’s face.) Occasionally in the course of one of his rapid-fire tête-à-têtes with a colleague or friend or rival, Fassbender’s Jobs will slide down a bannister, or bend himself into downward-facing dog. At one point he utters the word “absofruitly.” The real Jobs would say things like “absofruitly.” But coming from Fassbender’s gravelly GQ model, with his boardroom polish and hollow soul, the line falls flat.

The mistake isn’t just one of mannerisms. It’s one of values. It’s true that Jobs loved Apple’s famous “1984” Super Bowl commercial, in which a lone female athlete dashes through a crowd of identically clad, goose-stepping drones to shatter the Orwellian video screen that’s controlling their minds. But the Jobs in the movie seems to love it mostly because he thinks it will sell computers and make him Time magazine’s man of the year. The real Jobs no doubt shared those motivations. Yet he also seemed truly convinced that he was sticking it to The Man, even as he became him.

Jobs famously told Stanford’s graduating class of 2005 to “stay hungry, stay foolish.” He cribbed the line from the back of a 1974 edition of the Whole Earth Catalog, Stewart Brand’s influential counterculture magazine, which had helped to shape Jobs’ philosophy of technology as a force for creativity and personal fulfillment. Jobs embodied that exhortation. Fassbender’s version appears to have remembered only the first half.

Boyle, the director, declared at the film’s Telluride premiere that films like Steve Jobs and The Social Network “have to be made.” That’s because, “benign as they seem,” Silicon Valley’s titans “have created forces that are more powerful than governments and banks.” He’s right. And yet he seems to miss what it is about computers, smartphones, and social networks that gives them such power. It isn’t just the shrewd salesmanship or the unchecked ambition of the people who create them. It’s that, unlike bankers or politicians, they’re selling us a vision of the future that they genuinely believe in.

The Big Brother of Jobs’ “1984” commercial was IBM, the big blue machine that built big black boxes that powered big bad bureaucracies. His dead-eyed drones stared dully at a single, monolithic video screen that enforced their uniformity. Jobs thought he was fighting that machine by putting the same power into friendlier, smaller, brightly colored boxes that would fit on our desks and ultimately in our pockets and on our wrists. And, in some ways, he was right. Personal computing transformed society, ushered in the information age, and democratized the tools of mass communication. Jobs’ vision, combined with his extraordinary design sense and marketing acumen, helped to make all of that happen.

But look whose screens we’re all staring at, dead-eyed, today. And look what corporate superpowers are watching our every tap and click and mining our data to fuel their profit machines. With apologies to his friends and family, the tragic flaw of Steve Jobs was not that he couldn’t love his daughter. It’s that he failed to see how the products he pitched in that “1984” commercial could become Orwellian in their own right.

Read more in Slate about Steve Jobs: