Suffer the Little Children: On Macbeth and Steve Jobs

Over the next few days, Film Forum is showing three very different Macbeths: Orson Welles’s from 1948 (the director’s cut, complete with the Scottish brogues the studio had dubbed over), Akira Kurosawa’s from 1957 (Throne of Blood), and Roman Polanski’s from 1971. But the most recent film adaptation of Macbeth, released last month and still hanging on in theaters, is Justin Kurzel’s (with a screenplay by Jacob Koskoff, Michael Lesslie, and Todd Louiso), in which Michael Fassbender plays the king as a scarred survivor, traumatized by war and by the death of his infant son.

The new Macbeth opens with a shot of a baby lying on a funeral pyre. Macbeth places two stones over his child’s eyes before the pyre is lit, and this death haunts the rest of Kurzel’s bloody, dour film. Children are at its center—throughout, boys and girls are swiftly sent off to battle or sacrificed for political reasons. Kurzel seizes every opportunity to remind us that this man is marked by the death of children. As Macbeth mutters, “So foul and fair a day I have not seen,” we see him helping to gather the bodies of young men—boys—who have died in combat. In the famous scene in which he imagines a dagger in front of him, the weapon appears not as a floating object but in the hands of a boy he himself had prepared for war, who was then brutally killed. The three witches are joined in this version by a fourth, a young girl, and by the end of the film, one of them is carrying an infant in her arms. In Shakespeare’s play, Macbeth sends his men to kill Macduff’s family; in Kurzel’s film, Macbeth himself watches as Macduff’s wife and three children burn at the stake, an echo of the opening scene in which his own child is consumed by flames.

As Macbeth, Fassbender (unlike Jon Finch in Polanski’s version) is stooped over, worn down with suffering: There is no swagger in him. Kurzel’s Macbeth is a story not about power and ambition but about grief. What concerned the director, he said during a press conference at Cannes, was “what you do to replace something you’ve lost. I’ve experienced that in my own life. I was very interested in how desperate you can be to fill a hole left by grief.”

If anyone can make Macbeth compelling as a study in sorrow rather than in brash ego or maniacal greed, it’s Fassbender, whose aggression—whether playing a drug trafficker or an MI6 agent, a sex addict or a robot, a slave-owner or Carl Jung—appears to spring from a well of pain so deep that our first impulse is always to understand rather than condemn him. What the text actually gains from this interpretation is another question. Perhaps each generation gets the Macbeth it wants. It seems telling that Macbeth was not the only Michael Fassbender film released late last year about an ambitious man and his mistakes, nor the only one in which children serve as a kind of crutch for the filmmakers whenever any doubt about their hero’s noble intent creeps into the frame: Steve Jobs, directed by Danny Boyle from a screenplay by Aaron Sorkin, is a series of snapshots of a man ultimately defined by his struggle to come to terms with his estranged eldest child.

Fassbender may seem an odd choice to play the late Jobs, a singular man, to be sure—and Fassbender has played a series of singular men—but one reputedly devoid of movie-star charisma or charm. In the opening scene, set backstage just before the 1984 launch of the Macintosh, Fassbender wears his white button-down a little too well, as if he has been cast in part to help rescue Jobs’s reputation (which does seem to be the film’s primary motive). Jobs was notoriously prickly, which is a nice way of saying he was a prick. Taking its cue from its source material, Walter Isaacson’s biography of the same name, Steve Jobs is willing to contend with its hero’s complicated personality only to the extent that it burnishes the myth of a man so ambitious that he had to be flawed. Yet it departs significantly from Isaacson in its central focus on fatherhood: Like the new Macbeth, it brings in a child to help soften our view of its hero. The film collapses the story of Jobs’s life into three events: the product launch of the Macintosh; of the NeXT Computer, in 1988; and of the iMac, in 1998. At each of them, Lisa, the daughter Jobs fathered with his girlfriend Chrisann Brennan, but whose paternity he denied for years, is present backstage—providing an emotional arc that’s nowhere to be found in the book.

Michael Fassbender in Danny Boyle's Steve Jobs (2015)
Michael Fassbender in Danny Boyle's Steve Jobs (2015)

At the Macintosh event, Chrisann (Katherine Waterston), with five-year-old Lisa (Makenzie Moss) in tow, confronts Jobs in his green room: “I applied for welfare yesterday,” she says. When Lisa notices an Apple personal computer that shares her name, Jobs tells her it’s a coincidence. At the end of the film, though, he admits that the “Lisa” was indeed named for her. Steve Jobs closes with a nineteen-year-old Lisa standing just offstage at the iMac launch, her face awash in the colorful lights of the spectacle. Her father walks toward her across the stage, in slow motion and to thunderous applause, his eyes focused squarely on his daughter. Yet in Isaacson’s account of this event, Lisa is never mentioned—in fact, there’s no reference to her being present at any of the product launches. What Isaacson does describe is Jobs’s obsession with those stage lights, designed to make the newly revealed iMac sparkle just so.

Isaacson also describes a confrontation Jobs once had with the wife of John Sculley, Apple’s former CEO. “When I look into most people’s eyes,” she told him, “I see a soul. When I look into your eyes, I see a bottomless pit, an empty hole, a dead zone.” But who could look into Michael Fassbender’s eyes and see the same? To watch Fassbender—who manages to humanize reckless ambition like no other actor of his generation—play these two very different kinds of sociopath is to notice how keen both films are to pat their subjects on the back and say, There, there. We feel your pain.

Like The Social Network, also scripted by Sorkin, Steve Jobs seems so eager to make its subject comprehensible that it threatens to flatten what should be intriguing and strange into an all-too-familiar, bland narrative. There’s something neat and intuitive about the notion that Mark Zuckerberg invented Facebook because he couldn’t keep a girlfriend, because he yearned for the human connections he was too awkward to achieve IRL—but it doesn’t offer us much beyond neatness. It reassures us that the men who make unusual things, who reshape our world or at least have a remarkable, sometimes alarming degree of influence over it, feel just as we do. This is the same move by which Macbeth, one of our best-known explorations of extreme ambition, of power and its corruptions, becomes instead a portrait of a grieving dad. Steve Jobs and Macbeth may risk being more interesting to think about than they are to watch, because they each seem to want it both ways: they want their great men to also be good men.

Lara Zarum is a graduate of the Cultural Reporting and Criticism program at NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. Her work has appeared in the Village Voice, the New Republic, the Globe and Mail, and Guernica, among other publications.