Steve Jobs and the Nonprogressive Hero’s Journey
Steve Jobs is an anomaly in that it differs from the normal “biopic” formula of following it’s subject’s life from birth through death (whether that be linear or not). The screenplay was written in a way where it focused on three important points of the subjects’ life both historically and thematically, conveniently paralleling the traditional three act structure of any standard “hero’s journey” narrative. Yet it is this very obvious and rigid structure that limits the character development and story, which ultimately leads to three very boring, predictable, and underwhelming acts.
The limits of the screenplay’s structure become evident even as early as the first act. The audience is first introduced to the protagonist preparing to launch a product while he is confronted by various people in his life on a personal or professional level. This juxtaposition of work and social issues and how they overlap is where one sees who Jobs is: a forward-thinking yet uncompromising man who puts his work above all else. Using vehicles such as the denial of accepting his daughter as his own, putting pressure on an engineer to fix a demo, and his partnership/friendship with Steve Wozniak, the audience can easily see Jobs’ character flaws: he should acknowledge his daughter, he should treat people better, and he should acknowledge the Apple 2 team per his friend Wozniak’s request. By the end of the first act, we see Jobs agree to help out his daughter and her mother financially, give some kind of approval to the engineer, yet refuse to fulfill Wozniak’s request.
The second act then is largely the same as the first act, albeit 4 years later and with a new product launch, but still limited in it’s framework. Yet the protagonist is still confronted with exactly the same issues, and reacts to them with marginal “growth.” Now he has somewhat accepted his daughter, yet is still distant and somewhat dismissive. He is a bit more “laissez-faire” with his attitude towards his engineers. Yet remains the same in his refusal to acknowledge the Apple 2 team. Because the story still takes place before a product launch, we are limited to the same devices and setting in order to see how the protagonist overcomes himself- which is incremental and predictable based on the first act at best. He starts talking to his daughter a little more. He shows signs of perhaps being able to accept some of his failures and flaws. He continues to ignore Steve Wozniak.
The third act is, again, another product launch. He has issues with his daughter. He has issues with an engineer. He still won’t fulfill Steve Wozniak’s request. He overcomes the first two, but not the third, ultimately sacrificing an edgy friendship for the integrity of his vision. Exactly the same as the previous two acts. There is some catharsis in the protagonist’s reconciliation with his daughter, where he decides to suspend his stubbornness over a minute issue and pay for his daughter’s college. There is also a bit more when the engineer confronts him and ultimately humiliates the protagonist. Yet even that ends with his complete dismissal and self proclaimed utter “indifference” to his and anyone else’s opinion, thereby eradicating what little growth may have been had throughout this and similarly previous encounters. We seem to have largely the same protagonist as we had at the beginning of the film: prepping for a product launch backstage, being confronted by various people in his life on a personal or professional level, still a forward-thinking yet uncompromising man who puts his work above all else.
There are other elements in the film that are not focused on in this essay, such as his relationship with his ex-boss John Sculley, his interactions with his confidant Joanna Hoffman, various flashbacks, and many other technical aspects including cinematography, editing, and limited visual effects. While one can dissect these elements to justify certain aspects of the film such as the overall plot, these items do not contribute to any of the protagonist’s development. One could argue that John Sculley is merely symbolic of his presence or absence at Apple (inverse of each other), but contributes little to Steve Job’s actual character. The same could be argued for Joanna Hoffman; her character is merely a representation of the crossroads between work and personal life, but actually affects the protagonist very little (except at the end, but even that seems to come more from the engineer than her).
One can understand the fascination with the company and products themselves, however none of these directly correlate to character development- instead, they only re-enforce his steadfastness. While the story of Apple and Steve Jobs’ rise and fall within the company appeals to a western capitalist audience that fetishizes the consumer products he created, the actual character development is lacking and makes for an less than compelling narrative. The closed nature of the space and screen play structure force any progression to feel contrived and vapid. The typical “hero’s journey” where the conflict of “Man vs. Self” does not feel satisfactory is because the journey ends in the same place as where the hero started. Steve Jobs may appear to be deeper than it actually is due the audience’s ability to fill in the blanks with recent history about the specific technology and Apple, but will ultimately leave feeling like they missed something.