THE BLOG
08/21/2013 12:12 pm ET Updated Oct 21, 2013

Jobs Is a Fascinating Failure

I exited the Motion Picture Academy on Saturday evening with a feeling of... exasperation, lack of fulfillment, even despair. I had gone to the JOBS screening with great hope for a satisfying cinematic experience about one of my boyhood heroes. Instead, I got a long (2 hours +) TV movie with a smirking TV star. However, I had attended the movie with Jill Kossow, who had been an intimate associate at Apple of the main characters of the film, from Steve Jobs to Steve Wozniack to John Sculley. In the lobby she patted my arm and said soothingly, "I believe the movie was for the most part accurate with what happened over the years that it covered, which left out the last 10 years-without a doubt the most successful years. Most of what we saw tonight has been well-documented in other movies or TV shows that followed the life of Steve."

She had recently spoken to the 74-year old John Sculley in Palm Beach, where he is living and working on some exciting Internet startups. He plays a major role in the film as an associate and then opponent of Jobs, and had seen the film just that evening. He is quoted as saying on CNBC that they played fast-and-loose with the facts, especially by downplaying Woz's competency. He thought Ashton was a good Jobs and the actor who played him, John, better looking than he was in real life. Jill, who worked with him for nine years at Apple, said that "He always encouraged people to step out of their boxes and take risks and fly He always said failure is part of the learning curve and if we don't fail, we will never win. That was his way at Apple, to make sure the environment always encouraged failure without punishment., the direct opposite of the way most executives in business today promote."

I recently read the best-selling authorized biography about Apple genius Steve Jobs written by Walter Isaacson. It was based on more that 40 interviews with his subject conducted over two years, as well as interviews with more than 100 family members, friends, adversaries, competitors and colleagues. Jobs died on October 5th, 2011, of pancreatic cancer. Sadly, he had a rare form of the disease which would have responded to early conventional treatment...but he, the control freak, chose to first try alternative medicines until it was too late. Isaacson describes Jobs as "frequently obnoxious, rude selfish, and nasty to other people." But he goes on to document his genius. On Thursday evening, Oracle's Larry Ellison, the third richest man in America and - according to him - Steve Jobs' best friend, discussed him on Charlie Rose. He said that he thought Isaacson had ended up really not liking Jobs and it is reflected in the book. Ellison saw him as the Picasso or Einstein of our time, the Edison of the Internet age.

The film that I saw at the Academy was not based upon that book, which will be the basis for a competing Sony film being written by Aaron Sorkin ("The Newsroom," and "The Social Network"). They have not yet cast their lead role. The current film stars the youngish Ashton Kutcher (star of the abysmal "Two and a Half Men"). He has been all over the airwaves this week and I was fascinated watching him on Charlie Rose talking about his many investments in startup internet companies ("Skype" and "Spotify"). He is said to have a million tweeter followers, which seems incredible and scary to me. This film in which he stars depicts Steve Jobs as a brilliant, irritable, unpleasant fellow, which is probably close to the truth. In the course of my long life I have met many successful businessmen who were lacking the "nice" gene, the "compassionate" gene, the "decency" gene. This Jobs was one of those guys. But what is missing is a deeper understanding of what made him that way, a more rounded portrayal than the shallow one here. The film opens with a gaunt Jobs introducing the IPod at a town hall meeting in 2001, and unsubtly compares this achievement to those of Einstein and Gandhi. "What it represents is as important as what it is," he proclaims. "It's a tool for the heart." While I never had an IPod, it does describe my feelings for my IPhone, IPad, and IMac. The filmmakers, director Joshua Michael Stern and writer Matt Whiteley, thus have begun with the legend and work back to the harsh reality. (And it is harsh!) While worshipping the man, it unhesitatingly does not flinch from showing him with all his warts. He abandons his pregnant girlfriend and daughter...although later we see the youngster back in his life lying on a couch, with no explanation (probably left on the cutting-room floor.) He was adopted and an abandoned child himself, weepingly saying, "Who has a baby and just throws it away like its nothing?" Then there's a montage of him traveling around India seeking enlightenment. After that, remember the game company Atari? He worked for them, suffering from bad personal hygiene and social skills. Sent off to develop Pong (which we all played), he teams up with an engineering friend, Steve Wozniack, and is captured by a personal project Woz is developing, a motherboard for a personal computer thing. The best part of the film is these early years. The bulk of the film goes from 1971, when he teams up with Woz (played by an excellent Josh Gad) in their famous garage (which the filmmakers actually captured in Los Altos), to 1991, when he triumphantly returns to the company from which he had rightly been booted. I did love the scene when, in slow motion, we see the geeky team putting together the first Apple computers. (I remember trying do the same with the early versions.) I understand that Woz is cooperating with the other Sony film, so he has not collaborated here, but he is still probably the most interesting and sympathetic character in the movie. I trust that the other film will develop this relationship along stronger personal lines. Gizmodo scored a coup yesterday when it got Woz to comment on the film; he gave it a pretty tepid review. "I thought the acting was good," he said. "I was attentive and entertained, but not greatly enough to recommend the movie." Woz went on to point out what he considers the movie's main flaw: "It attributes Job's mythical business and technological brilliance, which only came into play during and after the release of the IPod, to the man's entire life. By contrast, the movie stops at that point." Woz also noted that he donated many of his shares after the IPO (initial public offering of stock) to Apple employees who wouldn't have otherwise received stock (which Isaacson also touches upon in his book.) "I also made it possible for 80 other employees to get some stock prior to the IPO so they could participate in the wealth." (Editor's note: Woz's actions were in contrast to Jobs, who when he took over Pixar eliminated the equity of all existing employees.)

We see Jobs trying to develop the Apple Lisa (named after the daughter he abandoned) and then....the Macintosh. (I got one in 1984 and lived with it happily for years.) He fought with investors and his Board and eventually is deposed by John Sculley, whom he had recruited from Pepsi. "Hiring you was the worst mistake I ever made," he lashes out, but it was too late. Jobs spending was spiraling out of control and the Board, led by Sculley and investor Markkula (Matthew Modine) ousts him. He later told Isaacson, "I felt like I'd been punched, the air knocked out of me, and I couldn't breath." By then we see that Woz had resigned, Jobs girlfriend and daughter were estranged, and he was living in an unfurnished mansion with only a poster of Albert Einstein to keep him company. He founded another firm, NEXT, develops Nexus, which is then bought by a desperate Apple.... and he returns to save the company with new products (developed by others). The older, more reflective Jobs, who then ruthlessly fires Makkulla, is asked what they were going to do, and he coolly answers: "We are going to put a dent in the universe." And sure enough, he did!

I shuddered as he ruthlessly screwed his initial team on its stock options, hurt his daughter, and savagely fought with the 'suits' who tried to rein him in. They even show him cursing at Microsoft's young Bill Gates over the phone. (Although I know that Gates visited him several times at the end when he was dying. Nice gesture, that.) A small touch: he always ignored 'handicapped parking signs' and took the space. As someone said, the film gets it all right technically but never get the mysterious "X factor" that made Steve Jobs so successful. He was a genius, he was (pardon my language) an asshole, and he was a leader. We see the first two, but lack the third. He was responsible for making Woz see the commercial possibilities of the all-in-one graphic computer and making it appear absolutely different from anything else around. The vicious behavior is also here...especially the violent outrage at his subordinates and partners. But the leader role is sadly lacking.....something which we will certainly see in the next film by Sorkin based upon the wonderful Isaacson book. Here we have a portrait of a brilliant psychopath, but we don't see.....charisma...which the real Jobs had. (I once attended a lecture by him and was captured by his magical aura.)

Jill sent me an email Sunday morning: "I would not see the movie again. And I found they only talked about the bad parts of Steve Jobs, made him a monster of sorts. Under Steve Jobs we also had th best benefits of any company in the valley, and the attrition rate of Apple was around 10%, the standard for high-tech companies in Silicon Valley is around 15-20% If this was so bad, why did people like me stay for 15 years? "

Speaking of this other Sony film, Aaron Sorkin gave an interview to the Daily Beast telling a bit about what he is writing, a very unorthodox mode which will play out in three scenes in real time with no cuts back and forth. Each scene of Jobs life will be played backstage just before the introduction of a new product, so we will get a picture of him through the lens of his major successes. The first will be the Mac, the second being NeXT, after he was evicted from Apple, and the third being the iPod. Sorkin wrote: "I don't know if you remember the ad campaign Jobs did. It was "Think Different. Here's to the crazy one.' That's how it began. If I can end the movie with that text and that voiceover....if I can earn that ending then I will have written the movie I wanted to write." As he says, he will be portraying a heroic picture of the late Apple co-founder. "It's a little like writing about the Beatles," he added. "There are so many people out there that know him and revere him." God, I can't wait to see that film!

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