It’s a curious experience to watch movies featuring people or events from your life history. So I went to the theater not knowing what to expect of the new Steve Jobs movie.
I’ve enjoyed Jobs’ biographies, but this cinematic portrayal is off-putting for people who have actually worked at Apple. The movie creates its own “reality distortion field.” While Hollywood admires Steve Jobs’ larger-than-life persona or legacy, it struggles to tell his story.
Steve Jobs offers brainy entertainment — but few real insights into Apple during its early years, when the culture was shaped by the volatile alchemy of Steve Jobs and John Sculley. Despite what the title might lead you to expect, this is not a biopic. Instead the script is driven by the cinematic memes and archetypes of Hollywood, loosely inspired by events from Steve Jobs’ early career.
I went to the local opening of Steve Jobs with a girlfriend. We share a common history: working for Apple during the early days of the Macintosh, before it was cool to wear an Apple badge. Both of us had interacted with Steve Jobs and other characters portrayed in the film, so our respective experiences were the lens through which we viewed this movie. We had a long discussion afterwards, as we tried to reconcile our reactions to the movie.
We liked it as a story divorced from reality, but faulted it as a movie that pretends to tell the story of Steve Jobs or the early days of Apple.
Despite a powerful performance by the lead actor, Michael Fassbender, we agreed that the portrayal of Steve Jobs bears little resemblance to the man who led our company. The same goes for the John Sculley character. The Woz character was perhaps slightly more true to life. Walt Mossberg’s critique of Aaron Sorkin’s movie (which I’ve just now read) reaches similar conclusions to ours: This wasn’t the man we knew.
The central premise to the plot is unbelievable to anyone who knew Steve Jobs, worked for Apple or who’s been around launch events for companies like Apple or Microsoft.
It takes, as Mossberg writes, some extreme “artistic liberties” with the storyline:
Sorkin chose to cherry-pick and exaggerate some of the worst aspects of Jobs’s character, and to focus on a period of his career when he was young and immature. His film chooses to give enormous emphasis to perhaps the most shameful episode in Jobs’s personal life, the period when he denied paternity of an out-of-wedlock daughter.
The 3-act story takes place largely off stage, in the rehearsal rooms or backstage corridors of venues like the Flint Center or Davies Symphony Hall. At each venue Steve Jobs is preparing to kick off a highly choreographed product introduction event. You see a temperamental, driven persona who is willing to break the rules (like turning off the exit signs) into order to create the kind of experience he wants to orchestrate for his high-impact product launches. (This part of the story is, sadly, believable.)
Each act takes place during the highly charged moments before Steve Jobs is due to go on stage to launch a groundbreaking new product (and a new chapter in his life). The storyline features conflict-driven interactions off-stage between Steve Jobs and central players in his work or personal life. The dramatic themes are emotional blackmail, betrayal, revenge, envy — classic Hollywood tropes. The movie’s creators would have you believe that these are the central themes that drove Steve Jobs’ life…
The plot structure is based on a premise that’s unbelievable to people who understand what’s involved with high-stakes launch events. These events are tightly scripted, rigorously rehearsed. Access to the key speakers and presenters is highly controlled. There is no way an event producer would allow anyone to distract the keynote speaker during his final moments before the performance.
Despite that reality, those final backstage moments drive the plot. The drama hinges on one volcanic conflict after another between Jobs, his troubled ex-girlfriend, his boss John Sculley, Woz, Andy Hertzfeld and others. These no-holds-barred conflicts explode backstage shortly before each event is scheduled to kick off, putting its start time or Jobs’ performance at risk.
As you learn from these confrontations, Steve Jobs’ relationships range from broken to dysfunctional; he comes across as a dictator or a psychopath. There’s no hint of the charisma that inspired people to do their best work for him, despite the impossible pressures and deadlines he imposed. There are few, if any clues, to the sources of his creative genius.
The narrative is overly obsessed with Steve’s origins as an adopted child, given away by his biologic parents, and therefore driven to make a difference, to leave a “dent in the universe.” It fixates on his broken relationship with Chrisann Brennan, ex-girlfriend and mother of his unacknowledged daughter Lisa. These are emotional “truths” that are typical Hollywood currency.
The movie would have you believe that Jobs’ professional life was motivated by revenge after being kicked out of Apple. Yet there’s no mention of what most people view as his transformative years at Pixar, and only a passing glance at his humbling experiences at NeXT.
It’s obsessed with his dysfunctional relationships with Chrisann and Lisa. Yet there’s no mention of his wife Laurene Powell and their three children, arguably the most important and beloved people in his life. There’s no mention of the role his adoptive parents played in shaping his early years — just the crippling impact of his rejection by his biologic parents. (There’s even a gratuitous scene with his biologic father, a waiter at a Silicon Valley restaurant, who recognizes Jobs, but only as a regular patron.)
Behind the Scenes
There’s no mention of the strategic groundwork that surrounded Steve’s return to Apple in 1997, nor his soul searching before making the decision to return to Apple. The movie’s revenge theme would lead you to believe this was an easy decision.
For a dose of reality, here’s a story that describes Steve Jobs’ strategy for saving Apple, based on what he told the secret team that helped him prepare his presentation for his first back-to-Apple MacWorld. This story is narrated by the videographer, Michael Markman, who served on that team. At that time Steve was stepping into the role as de facto CEO, under the official title of “Advisor.”
The events described here take place a year before the iMac product launch that serves as Act 3 of Steve Jobs.
Where Are the Inspirations?
The movie sheds no light on the experiences, influential people or other factors that enabled Steve Jobs to become arguably the world’s most admired CEO, consummate showman and technology innovator.
The movie leaves unanswered the question of how such an immature, tormented, unlikable person could go on to lead the teams that would eventually create the world’s most desired, emulated and admired products and brands.
If not for the title “Steve Jobs,” if the film didn’t lead you to expect insights into a 21st century hero, I’d give the movie a B+ for sheer entertainment.
But as a story that aspires to shed light on the person and the story behind the brand “Steve Jobs,” it strikes me as sadly off base…
The world doesn’t need yet another set of half-baked myths about Steve Jobs or his legacy.