In Danny Boyle's film, Steve Jobs sees himself in his daughter Lisa, yet he can't fathom the damage he embodies or the crises he creates in that relationship -- or the imagination he so profoundly lacks.
"It's life's illusions I recall.
I really don't know life at all."
-- Joni Mitchell, "Both Sides Now"
"I'm not your father." In Steve Jobs, Steve Jobs (Michael Fassbender) says this more than once to Lisa (played by Makenzie Moss when she hears it the first time, at age five). The repetition is a function of the film's structure, three parts, each set backstage just before the launch of a new product, the sort of launch Steve Jobs made sensational and seemingly inevitable, each signaling the birth of another commercial adventure.
Yes, the analogy between Lisa and Steve's products is too obvious. And yes, Steve's self-deluding storytelling is too painful, a thematic burden borne by his daughter and articulated by his marketing director Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), who scolds, "What you make isn't supposed to be the best part of you. When you're a father, that's supposed to be the best part of you." But as this fictionalized Steve Jobs makes his way toward a connection with Lisa, he becomes a screen onto which you project your desires, your hopes that he would make that connection, that he would have a conventional trajectory, that he would conform to a story that you want to hear, but he can't tell.
The story Steve can tell, the one he tends to tell, is the one he tells Lisa in this early scene, backstage 1984 at the Flint Center in Cupertino, California, where he's about to show the first Macintosh. Addled by Lisa's mother Chrisann (Katherine Waterston), who stands before him, stern in her bellbottoms, hands on hips, viewed through Steve's filter as difficult and daunting. This while Steve is fretting that the Macintosh, for all its ingenuity, is at this moment unable to say "Hello", as he has advertised. Horrified that the show will not go off as planned, he pesters his software architect Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg) to make the thing work, to give artificial voice to the connection the Macintosh promises. That Steve, Andy, and Joanna come to the conclusion that deceiving the audience, to make the show go, sets up the following two performances, also premised on deceptions, in order to pitch something like perfection.
Aaron Sorkin and Danny Boyle's movie makes a pattern of Job's imperfection, primarily through his difficulties with Lisa. "I'm poorly made," he observes, even as his performance argues otherwise. A saga shaped by Steve's devastating focus and overwhelming desire, the film's three parts are shot differently, in 16mm, 35mm, and high definition digital, an increasing refinement that reflects advances in technology but not necessarily, Steve's own capacities to see or be seen. When he watches five-year-old Lisa make a drawing on the Macintosh, he's moved and still, he can't empathize, can't see her. Instead, he sees himself in her, his own need to test limits. At the same time, he can't fathom the damage he embodies or the crises he creates, the imagination he so profoundly lacks.
Maddening and charismatic, Steve doesn't so much develop as he represents, vividly and terribly, a complicated geometry of success. This geometry precludes isolation, much as he might perceive or want it. During the second act, before the 1988 NeXT launch at San Francisco's War Memorial Opera House, Steve argues with Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogan) backstage, surrounded by musicians' chairs and music stands. Bullied out of the company, Woz has (rather famous) reasons to be mad at Steve, and when he puts it t his former partner, asking just what it is he does, apart from exploiting the work of other people, Steve has an answer, namely, that he conducts, or, as he puts it, he "plays the orchestra".
With this, Steve leaves to locate Lisa (now nine and played by Ripley Sobo). She's eluding the adults who have expressed vague concern that she should be in school this day of the NeXT launch, the machine that is supposed to be Steve Jobs' "educational" product, even as he prices it beyond the means of most institutions. And as she stands atop a scaffold, watching workers scurrying to create her dad's show, scurrying to ready Steve's show, a beautifully calculated field of lights stretching before her as Steve comes up behind her.
Sealed into her own world by her Walkman earphones, she's still not exactly surprised to see him. Instructed by Joanna to ask Lisa about her own interests, Steve proceeds to ask his daughter what she's listening to. "Both Sides Now," she says, "a really old song." He recites the lyrics, maybe proud, certainly awkward, and she's left to ponder her dad's mystery, a tangle of rejection and love. He has no answer when she hugs his waist, tight, and says, "I want to live with you."
Cutting here to the third segment, Steve Jobs makes clear Steve's and its own limits. He can't live with Lisa, but the film projects that possibility for you, helps you to project it onto the screen called Steve. Just before the introduction of original Bondi blue iMac G3 in 1998 at San Francisco's Davies Symphony Hall, when Steve has been returned to his company, heralded as a savior while Apple CEO John Sculley (Jeff Daniels) -- the man Steve blames for his firing -- is cast off. They meet again, forgiving and aging, Steve transformed from the long-haired dreamer you see in flashbacks to a slim, determined, turtle-necked figure, the very image of cool self-control.
A brand and product as much as his iMac, this Steve Jobs again wants to find Lisa (Perla Haney-Jardine), now 19-years-old and as angry at her father as he is at her. This segment parallels a series of breakups and reunions, between father and daughter, Steve and Apple, Steve and Sculley. Steve says that "The company left me." His version of this past is rendered nearly gothic Steve faces the Apple board in a skewed angle, rain pouring outside huge windows and also reflected in the room's many glass surfaces, a cascade of slashing lights.
Steve's next story, the one about of the re-hiring, is even more spectacular: Joanna questions his thinking in even making the NeXT, and his explanation appears as a movie within the movie, an epic projected onto the tunnel-like walls in a Davies hallway. As he imagines his history in conjunction with NASA's, a space mission shoots over the walls confining them, now opened into a cosmos, illuminating and expansive but impossible to grasp, to control, to package.
In Sorkin's script, the NeXT failure leads Steve back to Apple. The movie frames this success with yet another effort to find Lisa. Steve Jobs lets you imagine a reconciliation and also, an ongoing rift, as the last scene takes her view of a dad on a stage, a showman who may or may not be returning to her, framed narrowly, blurred, hard to make out. In this transition, Lisa shapes your perspective, different from her father's, but similarly elusive and imperfect.