Funny or Die's amusing, if uneven 2013 web flick "iSteve," which marked the first Steve Jobs movie out of the gates (Gates?), proved at its best mocking biopic clichés – most prominently, "It's so crazy, it just might work!"
There's nothing crazy about making movies about the Apple chief, who helped forge the intersection of digital technology and mass media through the iPhone, iPod and iTunes, among other products. But making the movies work is another matter. Ashton Kutcher found as much with “Jobs,” an admirable 2013 effort that failed to prove anywhere near as memorable as its subject.
Now, with the fourth anniversary of Jobs' death approaching, his life is fodder for two more films: a documentary that debuts Friday and a Hollywood feature set to land Oct. 9. The works will test whether filmmakers finally can get a firm grip on an elusive figure who put the world in our hands.
Then again, not even Siri could adequately explain Jobs, a man, by multiple accounts, both cruel and generous, both a visionary and shortsighted in his dealings with people, both a victim and perpetrator of ruthless corporate machinations. There's no disputing, though, his genius as a salesman who brought innovations to life through his drive and the ability to drive others.
As noted at the time of his death at age 56, Jobs became an icon of the popular culture he helped us consume in new ways, with greater ease. The upcoming movies suggest the fascination with the thin, but powerful black-clad businessman who preached the gospel of a better life through the digital devices that made him billions, remains strong.
The documentary, “Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine,” promises, in promotional materials, to pull "no punches.” The tag line of the movie, directed by the noted filmmaker Alex Gibney (“Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief,” “Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer”), sets the tone: “Bold. Brilliant. Brutal.”
Meanwhile, the upcoming film “steve jobs” boasts a team that includes Michael Fassbender, who brings his trademark intensity to the title role, and a strong director, Danny Boyle (“Trainspotting,” “Slumdog Millionaire), who comes armed with talent for exploring the nuances of human nature.
The movie also boasts great source material (“Steve Jobs,” the 2011 biography by Walter Isaacson) and a script by Aaron Sorkin, whose 2010 film, ”The Social Network,” offered a compelling, if fictionalized story of Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook. At his best, Sorkin (“The West Wing,” “The Newsroom”) excels at putting words in the mouths of smart and hyperverbal, if flawed, characters.
The best biography-driven documentaries and Hollywood biopics force audiences to view the subject in new ways – reinventing, in a sense, their public persona. The challenge will be steep with Jobs, a master of both reinvention and image creation – a man, who, as Isaacson wrote, could conjure a “reality distortion field” and bend others to his will.
Then again, the idea of capturing the essence of Steve Jobs in two different kinds of films is so crazy, it just might work. Check out previews for both movies as cinematic Apple-picking season begins.
Jere Hester is Director of News Products and Projects at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.