Steve Jobs is a brilliantly conceived and emotionally revealing film by screenwriter Aaron Sorkin and director Danny Boyle. According to both, this film is a human story, not a biopic. I agree. As we get to know Jobs through the filmmakers’ eyes and Michael Fassbender’s performance, we learn the heartbreaking roots of Steve Jobs’ controlling behavior. If we look closely at his earliest days, it’s possible to understand why some people use intellect over feeling. That is, to stonewall any fear of heartbreak when it comes to the need for love.
A Baby Steve Jobs
I didn’t know the real Steve Jobs. I’m sure he was more multifaceted than the man Michael Fassbender portrays. Film takes artistic license.Yet, Sorkin’s screenplay and Fassbender’s performance reveal things that give me a chance to speak to what happens to a baby’s heart. Walling off and rejecting love starts early. A baby’s heart can be broken.
John Scully (Jeff Daniels), Jobs’ business partner, friend, and mentor, takes us back to Job’s birth. Steve Jobs’ birthmother left him to an agency, and he was adopted. Any adoption can leave a baby with confused feelings of abandonment. Yet, Steve Jobs’ wasn’t an ordinary adoption. His adoption is the story of a baby who isn’t wanted or loved. No one said hello.
Early experiences live inside us. There’s power in the unconscious. So, Jobs’ insistence that the Mac say “hello” at its initial launch is no accident. It had to say hello. This wasn’t just Jobs’ exacting demands. Saying hello is human. It’s what a baby needs.
Jobs’ life began without a hello. He was sent back to the agency after one month in his first adoption. His birth mother, then, made the second (and final) adoption so impossible that his mother, Clara Jobs, wouldn’t love him for a year. She could only think about her fear of losing him, not what a baby needs. So, Jobs was deprived of love. That’s devastating for a baby. What else is a baby to think but that something’s wrong with him?
A baby can’t survive without love. And, if he survives, a huge toll is taken. A baby has no control. Human relationships aren’t safe. Jobs’ says it well: “It’s about having no control. Being out of the loop when important decisions were made about your life.” Jobs won’t let that happen again. He’ll control all decisions. No one else will have a say. On top of that, his need for love is replaced by fantasies of power, of complete self-sufficiency.
This grand kind of competence over-rides a deep fear that if he lets people matter – they won’t stay. Job trades human need for an accumulation of visionary innovations. What’s his real intention? He’ll have complete control over any human feeling, no matter what this does to anyone else. Fassbender’s Steve Jobs becomes very much like a human-computer.
Steve Jobs lives inside self-protective indifference, Fassbender’s Steve Jobs does. Sometimes his indifference is vicious. He cruelly negates his own needs and that’s how he treats everyone who needs or wants anything from him. The worst is his daughter, Lisa.
No one said hello to him. And, Jobs can’t say hello to Lisa (Perla Haney-Jardine, Ripley Sobo, Mackenzie Moss). Lisa becomes his rejected baby self, the baby that isn’t wanted. This baby-self is the reason for his walled-off heart. Steve Jobs repeats with Lisa what was done to him. He rejects fatherhood and devalues her mother, ex-girlfriend Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston).
As the film goes on and the story of Jobs and Lisa unfolds, we do begin to see some cracks in his well-constructed defensive armor. The first crack is when Lisa, as a little girl (of about 6) uses Mac Art to make a drawing. She proves that Mac’s simple system, with its easily recognized icons, is exactly what people need. But with any opening, her father’s delicate heart quickly closes. Anyway, being smart (whether it’s Lisa or Jobs himself) is safer than feeling.
Intellect Versus Feeling
Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogan) can think in non-binary ways. He knows it’s possible to be decent and successful at the same time. But, Jobs can’t. Jobs lives in the world of either/or. Mostly, he chooses intellect over feeling. Intellect is the name of his game. Feeling, for an unwanted and deeply hurt baby, is the most dangerous choice of all.
Jobs’ visions of grand success; what his marketing executive and right-hand woman, Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet) calls his “reality distortion field” is the only way he can “look for” love. To do so, he has to be great, a big man, not a little unwanted baby. So, he aligns himself with superstars: Napoleon, Einstein, Dylan, and John Lennon. Then, he’s enraged (but actually feels unwanted and unloved) when he isn’t named Time Magazine’s Man of the Year.
Jobs felt like nothing as a baby. His need for almost god-like importance counteracts extreme fears of being unlovable and easily thrown away. He can better imagine waves of people bowing to his accomplishments, than let himself know that he, like everyone else, has a very basic need for love.
Cracks In His Armor
Jobs’ unfeeling armor begins to crack. One glimpse occurs when he and Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg) fight about Andy helping Lisa. Jobs, again, can only see himself. Lisa didn’t step in and stop her mother’s selling the house Jobs bought for them. He takes it as a personal rejection. So, he retaliates. He makes Lisa think he won’t pay her Harvard tuition. Andy sends the tuition check so Lisa won’t miss her classes. He knows what it’s like to be hurt by Jobs’ cruel threats.
Jobs is infuriated. Andy shows him up for the father he can’t be. It’s glaring, even to such a shut-down man. (Anyway, Joanna’s been at him about his treatment of Lisa, too.) They fight. Jobs is a master “one-upper” with his old self-protection. He tells Andy he’s indifferent to whether people like him or not, including Andy. Of course, that isn’t true. When Andy angrily says: “Well, since it doesn’t matter to you, I never did,” we see a crushed Steve Jobs. Now it’s very clear how Jobs fights off an ocean of sadness since birth. He obsessively goes over intellectual algorithms in his head. This way, he feels nothing. Indeed, intellect takes over.
Intellect fights against feeling. That’s Jobs’ internal struggle. Then, Joni Mitchell’s song, Both Sides Now, comes along. Can this (and Lisa) help a deeply hurt, seemingly indifferent, man can begin to change? Lisa, hungry to get through to her father, tells him she’s listening to two versions of Both Sides Now at the same time. She confides that there’s the “girly” interpretation (which we might call feelings) and the regret.
Thinking about the lyrics to Both Sides Now, we’re left to wonder whether Fassbender’s Steve Jobs will be able to see the illusions he’s lived by. Will he come to realize that his ability to accept and give love is clouded by his history as a baby? Can he see what he’s done to his daughter? Will he finally say, “’I love you’ right out loud?”
Jobs does admit he has no idea why he didn’t help Lisa as a child. When she asks why he couldn’t acknowledge that he was her father, he simply answers: “I’m poorly made.” It’s a beginning. Here’s a version of Steve Jobs who doesn’t have to know everything; can admit he has flaws. He begins to feel regret.
Regret Is Hope
You can’t go back and redo the past. Yet, the past still lives in your relationships now. Let yourself see. Open your heart, like Steve Jobs does when he talks to Lisa. Begin to see that life isn’t either/or. There’s more than one side. Feeling and intellect. His side of things – and someone else’s. Someone who needs him, like Lisa.
Yet, opening those walls against love takes a lot of courage. You, like Steve Jobs, probably built them early in life because you had no choice? It’s not easy. When a baby isn’t loved, a shell of indifference feels safer. That’s scary to turn it around. If you’re scared to feel, each time you do, you want to run right back into those self-protective walls. How do you turn it around?
It’s almost impossible to let down the walls alone. Usually, it takes the help of therapy or psychoanalysis. The seemingly safer choice of a life of the intellect, indifference, or any other kind of escape is always held out as a luring temptation. One that seems the better bet – especially, over recognizing any need for love.