'Steve Jobs' and Why Movies Can't Capture Genius

How the biopic on Apple cofounder is the latest film that fails to nail the elusive quality — and why it may not matter

Michael Fassbender as Apple cofounder/tech genius Steve Jobs in Danny Boyle and AAron Sorkin's biopic 'Steve Jobs.' Credit: Universal Pictures/Everett

Early in Steve Jobs, the Aaron Sorkin-scripted, Danny Boyle-directed biopic about the mercurial Apple co-founder, the hero does something so right yet so peculiar that you understand why a cult sprung up around him. It's 1984, a few weeks after the legendary SuperBowl commercial heralding the arrival of the Apple Macintosh. The official public unveiling is minutes away. The crowd, which has been kept waiting as its creator dithers and tinkers backstage, has begun muttering and stomping its feet. Jobs is a serenely confident pill of a man, micromanaging everything, making colossal demands at the last possible second, in such a tight timeframe that even a minor failure could mean catastrophe. Even though his staff is already close to cracking under the strain of making the computer say "hello" — the speech software just isn't working, for some reason — he adds one more impossible request, a sudden improvisation: He realizes that an employee's blue dress shirt has a pocket exactly the right size to fit a floppy disk, and decides that he wants to stride out onstage in an identical shirt, only white and the right size for Jobs' torso, with a disc in the breast pocket, subtly reinforcing the idea that Apple makes computer tech that's both beautiful and sensible.

So somebody needs to go and find someone somewhere in the building with exactly that kind of shirt within the next few minutes. Jobs gets his wish, along with his request to have the computer say "Hello," and at no point do you question the rightness of these and other demands, because Jobs is a genius — everyone around him knows this — and putting up with infuriating behavior is part of the price of having a brainiac touched by the hand of God in your life.

In this moment, Steve Jobs joins a growing subgenre of dramas revolving around the mystery and necessity of genius. These two elements are intertwined: We know on some level that we need people like Jobs around, despite what colossal pains in the ass they can be, because they drive all sorts of innovation — technical, financial, artistic, even personal. At no point do we ever really understand what makes the man tick, despite the razor-focus of star Michael Fassbender's nimble and defiantly unsentimental performance. Some of his history is filled in via expository backstory, mainly via brief flashbacks and extended conversations between Jobs and Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), his right-hand woman Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), his mentor John Scully (Jeff Daniels), his daughter Lisa (played as a teenager by Perla Haney-Jardine) and her mother Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston of Inherent Vice).

Yet Jobs himself remains a brooding question mark, because films about geniuses almost never give us any practical insight into what makes them geniuses. Mainly they practice what you might call a heliocentric model of drama: The genius is the sun, nourishing yet forbidding and always unfathomably distant, and all of the lesser mortals orbit around them, getting as close as they can without getting burned.

From Bird to Amadeus, A Beautiful Mind to Pollock, Tucker: The Man and His Dream to The Theory of Everything, it's amazing to think back on all of the different movies about genius and realize how rarely they even attempt to explain what it is, and what, exactly, it does to elevate the genius beyond what's considered unremarkable or normal or safe.

We're not talking about films where the hero or heroine gains/demonstrates proficiency, as seen in most movies about athletes or musicians: The protagonists of those kinds of stories are more immediately relatable and thus more suited to workaday fantasy. We might not be able to do more than a lame two-step or foxtrot, but we can understand how the hero of Saturday Night Fever or the heroine of Black Swan might have become an excellent or even great dancer, whatever other demons might have tormented them along the way. We might be able to throw or even take a punch, but Rocky does such a good job of showing how a goodhearted South Philly meathead could go the distance, thanks to willpower, love, and a thick skull, that we can imagine ourselves in a similar situation, or at least translate it into terms that connect with our lives, however thrilling or dull they may be.

The genius is the sun; all of the lesser mortals orbit around them, getting as close as they can without getting burned.

Genius is another matter entirely. Very few movies can peer inside and illustrate it in a way that makes dramatic or explanatory sense to moviegoers. It always seems miraculous in real life, and the movies tend to treat it that way, perhaps because there's not much else they can do. It feels almost like a corollary of a statement by Arthur C. Clarke (briefly glimpsed in newsreel footage at the start of the film, explaining what a computer is): Any high technology, sufficiently removed from the comprehension of the society that encounters it, is indistinguishable from magic. So films treat it as a kind of magic as well, respected via roundabout verbal descriptions and set pieces that depict epiphanies, discoveries and innovations as the modern equivalent of Moses encountering the Burning Bush.

Salieri in Amadeus can't comprehend genius any better than we can, describing his idol and rival Mozart as a decadent man-child who cranks out masterpieces with such seeming lack of effort that he might be taking "dictation from God." (Even the title implies it's about the genius's relationship to godliness, so the elevated language makes sense in context.) But most secular films treat the subject with a quality of religious awe as well, and flinch from staring too closely at it. Dizzy Gillespie in Bird lets his jaw unhinge as he hears Charlie Parker soloing, but spends much of the film worrying that Bird's womanizing and smack habit are ruining his gifts; it's ultimately more of a film about how attractive genius is to friends and potential lovers, and how hard is it to watch a troubled genius suffer because they can't connect to anyone else.

As the plots of genius films unfold, we see milestones in lives and careers — but there are rarely any eureka moments, because when movies do provide them, they can feel reductive or clichéd. When Pollock's hero just happens to drip some paint on a canvas and realizes Hey, that's interesting, I should do that again on purpose, it feels false even if it is true — as excessively tidy as the action in the prologue of, say, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, where the teenage hero acquires his bullwhip, brown fedora, chin scar and fear of snakes in 10 minutes flat. And when genius movies traffic too ostentatiously in metaphor or dramatic embellishment, the result can be borderline sickening. The worst example in recent decades is the big "twist" in A Beautiful Mind, a movie that devotes spends almost no time explaining its physicist hero's science-altering mathematical innovations to laypeople; instead, it chalks them up to his mental illness, which is represented by a mini-gallery of character actors making like a bunch of Tyler Durdens in period clothing.

Once in a great while you'll see a representation of genius that draws comprehensible connections between the character and his life and influences, but such works are rare. Among the better examples are TV's Mad Men, whose brilliant ad man hero is constantly deriving inspiration from his own tortured childhood and present-tense romantic and professional woes, and 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould (1993), which takes a prismatic, anthology-style approach to the pianist's chaotic life, extraordinary career, superhuman memorization abilities, and mental deterioration. The latter's aesthetic high point is 39-second experimental film-within-a-film — an oscilloscope rendering of "Variation in C Major" that helps you appreciate Gould's precision by briefly removing the pianist from the movie. It's a genius flourish necessarily different from, but in the spirit of, Gould himself; it seems to have just burned itself onto the screen as inscribed with lightning, while somehow still feeling as though it's connected to everyday life. Most films can't or won't do such things, perhaps because it takes a genius to understand a genius, and most filmmakers, like most people, are not geniuses. If they're lucky, they are sound enough storytellers to keep a genius onscreen without boring us with vagueness or alienating us with hype.

The bigger the genius, the more likely he or she is (it's nearly always a he) to be depicted as a glorified supporting character, an absent presence, or an impossible ideal for all the non-genius characters to measure themselves against. Albert Einstein, for one, has never been the subject of a feature-length dramatic film, although he pops up occasionally as a supporting player — often a lovable wise man dispensing aphorisms, a la Walter Matthau in the college-set romance I.Q. (1994). The only screen depiction of Einstein that gets anywhere close to capturing what his work meant to the rest of us — forget about explaining his equations — is Nicolas Roeg's Insignificance (1985), a pop culture parable in which Einstein, Marilyn Monroe, Joe DiMaggio and Joseph McCarthy have an impromptu state-of-humanity summit in a New York hotel room. The only way cinema can deal with a figure of this magnitude is to turn him into a dramatic abstraction whose presence says more about how we feel about Einstein than it does about Einstein the person.

No surprise, then, that genius movies so often retreat into the realm of self-help epiphany, using melodrama to demonstrate that geniuses, like the movie stars caught shopping in supermarkets and dabbing ointment on sunburns, are people, too: pants, one leg at a time, we swear. Steve Jobs ultimately settles here, too, despite early indications that it will attempt something more daring. Sorkin's script has an audacious formal conceit, breaking the story into three acts, each built around a product launch (respectively, the Macintosh, the NeXT cube, and the iMac) — the better to illustrate how Jobs' mystique had as much to do with PT Barnum-style showmanship as it did with his belief that people craved beauty and simplicity and a sense of being in on a trend.

But as the movie chugs along, we gradually start to figure out that the structure is just a nifty gimmick separating it from typical hagiography. Sorkin and Boyle don't give us any more insight into the subject's singular personality and imagination than we could get from reading a print biography or watching a halfway decent documentary; the film is imaginative, but not that imaginative, so it focuses on the question of whether geniuses need necessarily be assholes as well, and concludes (shocker!) that no, in fact they don't. Jobs learns to acknowledge and accept and even listen to his daughter, and to express love for a person who has no direct effect on his achievements as a businessman or high tech icon.

The most moving image in the film is its closing shot: Lisa watching her father go out onstage to thunderous applause, then turn around briefly and move back towards her, if only for an instant. Lisa is in focus, Jobs is out-of-focus; we don't know how long this personal reorientation of the cosmos will last, but for a simplistic but endearing instant, Steve Jobs has managed an end-run around the problem of how to represent that which might be un-representable. It's not about genius, but about a man who happened to be one, and the inspiration and misery he brought to the people around him, and his astonishment at realizing that it's okay for the sun to acknowledge the planets sometimes, and say hello.