On October 11, 2011, I received an email from Simon & Schuster asking whether I might be interested in having an author named Walter Isaacson speak at the Burlington Book Festival (of which I'm the director). He'd written a book titled Steve Jobs, "based on more than 40 interviews with Jobs conducted over two years, as well as interviews with more than a hundred family members, friends, adversaries, competitors and colleagues."
The book did well, to say the least. Despite being released on October 24, it went on to become Amazon's No. 1 seller for 2011, a New York Times bestseller and a Time magazine best book of the year. Most recently, it's the basis of Aaron Sorkin's screenplay for a riveting retooling of the biopic Steve Jobs, directed by Danny Boyle (127 Hours) and released nearly four years to the day after the book announced in the email. But more about those riveting aspects in a moment.
First, two other things you should know about the film: To start with, almost nothing in it happened. At least not as shown. Sorkin hasn't so much adapted the source material as reshaped it into a three-act theater piece that plays fast and loose with the facts when not ignoring them altogether. Second, it's nothing short of mesmerizing.
Michael Fassbender looks about as much like Steve Jobs as I do, but he performs some kind of movie voodoo that makes him freakishly convincing. We follow him backstage in the moments leading up to three pivotal product launches — the Macintosh (1984), the NeXTcube (1988) and the iMac (1998). In each case, chaos threatens to disrupt the unveiling, and a Greek chorus of family and coworkers suffers the Great Man's fury.
These include Seth Rogen, perfectly capturing the growing resentment of Jobs' first partner, Steve Wozniak. The shape-shifting Michael Stuhlbarg is software genius and whipping boy Andy Hertzfeld; Kate Winslet is Apple marketing head Joanna Hoffman, whose duties included serving as her boss' conscience. Finally, Katherine Waterston plays Jobs' ex-girlfriend, Chrisann Brennan, and a talented trio of actresses portray her daughter, Lisa, whom Jobs denied for years was his daughter, as well.
Boyle and Sorkin do something subtle and brilliant in their staging of this now-familiar story. Look closely, and you'll see this isn't really a movie about computers at all. The machines are there, but the new iterations introduced in the launches — the ones the filmmakers are truly interested in — are the new and improved models of Jobs the man.
As he matures and comes to understand that many of his issues stem from having been given up by his birth parents, Jobs experiences a sort of updating of his spiritual software, allowing him to go easier on friends and embrace fatherhood. Never mind that, by this time, he was married to another woman and had three kids. Lisa is the offspring Sorkin has chosen as his metaphor, and it's Lisa we root for Jobs not to give up. Moving stuff, scripted dazzlingly and performed with uniform nuance.
So, back to that October 11 email. Jobs had died just six days earlier and hadn't been granted sainthood quite yet. I thought Isaacson's book sounded intriguing, but I failed to anticipate what a phenomenon it would become. I didn't get around to replying until December 1. By then, the halo was permanently in place, the human race had grieved as one and I had missed the boat. Isaacson was booked solid, not just for the rest of the year but through 2012, as well. Hell, he's probably still booked.
We can't all be visionaries.