What to make of Jobs, the first of two movies about Steve Jobs to hit the silver screen?
Well, for starters, if you blink, you may miss it. The Ashton Kutcher-starrer came in at the lower end of relatively low expectations, grossing $6.7 million at the domestic box office in its opening weekend.
Second, it's not a bad movie. And Kutcher makes for a credible Jobs. I'm not a Kutcher fan (not a detractor, either, I just haven't cared one way or another), but he does a fine impersonation of the mercurial tech maven. The problem, though not so much of one that it's not a film to be enjoyed, is with the conception of the film itself.
Jobs hits most of the stations of the cross in the legend that Steve Jobs the person became. But the story is oddly shaped, missing the big pay-offs of the last decade. Structurally, and quite oddly, it can almost be seen as mirroring the rise and fall of Mike Markkula, the youthful suit, counselor, and moneybags who floated Apple when it was in the fabled garage and helped develop it for years.
My old boss, high tech PR guru Regis McKenna (not a character in Jobs), already involved with Apple at Jobs's behest, helped bring Markkula together with Jobs and co-founder Steve Wozniak, the real founding technical wiz of Apple who actually created the first commercially viable personal computer, the Apple II.
In Jobs, which is as much a somewhat quirky history of Apple Computer (when it still had "Computer" in its name) as it is a biography of Jobs, Markkula is the youthful uncle figure (an early semiconductor stock options retiree all of 32 when he joined the Apple gang) who stays true to the vision by backing Steve Jobs to the hilt only to betray him when the bad board of directors suits -- led by a glowering venture capitalist Arthur Rock (more evil-seeming than I recall) -- take over in 1985. Markkula helps bring Jobs back into a struggling Apple only to have Jobs exact his slow-motion Zen spider revenge in 1997 just before the film ends.
The true story of Jobs's spectacular ouster from his own company in 1985, carried out by his hand-picked CEO, ex-Pepsi chief John Sculley, really gets down in the weeds in the context of discussing this movie. But so does the movie itself, in presenting its version of what happened.
Which gets at the fundamental problem of the movie. It tells us too much about Apple, and not enough about Jobs. And what it does tell us about Jobs is more a depiction of of events rather than an incisive look at what made him the great, maddening, transformational figure he was.
Of course, part of the trick today with presenting a big tech CEO as the protagonist of a major motion picture is the Tony Stark Factor. As Tony Stark, aka Iron Man, the troubled and charismatic genius technologist and weapons developer-turned-philanthropist superhero, Robert Downey, Jr. has cast a very high bar for this sort of thing. If your character isn't as compelling as the fictional version, you have a problem.
We also don't get much of a sense of the politics involved beyond invocation of the '60s/'70s counter-culture. It's interesting to note that Apple didn't begin participating in the National Security Agency's Prism program until after Jobs died. And co-founder Steve Wozniak has denounced the NSA's massive secret surveillance programs and called leaker Edward Snowden a hero.
When I first encountered him in the early '80s, although it was not immediately apparent, Steve Jobs was coming to the end of his fabulous first act in life. The spectacular introduction of the Macintosh in January 1984, which proved to be as big a game changer as he and others thought at the time -- just not immediately and not immediately for Apple -- was followed in 1985 by the sensational ouster of Jobs from Apple.
Always a disruptive force, though frequently creatively so, Jobs had become, in the regretful view of many who counted, a destructive force.
Jobs was only 30 when he was fired as head of the Macintosh Division and then forced out of Apple. His brilliance had spurred game-changing developments, but had run up against the limits of his expertise. "I don't know" isn't something that's easy for a famous visionary to say.
I was fortunate enough to be on hand for the unveiling of the Macintosh in January 1984. It was Apple's annual meeting, held at the Flint Center in Cupertino. I was there at the invitation of Regis McKenna, Jobs and Apple's longtime public relations and marketing counsel, with whom I later worked during the period in which Jobs had his breach with Apple. (Among many other things, McKenna's eponymous firm created the Apple logo, and masterminded the Mac launch with Jobs.)
Jobs was in vintage form, at his most ardently evangelizing, proudly removing the wraps at last from his "insanely great" product in one of the most seminal events in tech business history, replete with the showing of Chiat/Day's famed 1984 TV ad.
In an encounter later that year, I was stunned to learn that Jobs, a natural master if ever there was one, had not heard of the word "spin," which had famously emerged in the 1984 presidential campaign. Jobs had been so focused on Macintosh, so into what others have called his monomania, that he simply hadn't noticed.
By 1985, Jobs was relying heavily on spin. The Mac, while way cool, was not insanely great. Not yet, at least. It had fabulous characteristics which we take for granted today, but it was too expensive and simply didn't do enough, in part due to decisions forced by Jobs. His early insistence on uniformity and lack of expandability backfired.
Of course, those were still horse-and-buggy days, with tech's promise still largely in the future. The otherwise fabulous and future-oriented Regis McKenna Inc. office in Palo Alto, where I was assistant to the chairman, was still using something called telex for instant communications.
Nevertheless, the clunky, cheaper, corporado IBM PC did more stuff and was cleaning the Mac's clock. People on all sides were looking for scapegoats. Jobs, wistfully opining about Apple as dolphin and IBM as shark -- a notion pushed by my old Hart for President colleague Pat Caddell, who you now see railing away on Fox News (another story entirely) -- blamed Sculley and tried to engineer a coup, only to run afoul of a counter-coup.
Bounced from his leadership of the Mac, essentially sidelined, Jobs left Apple to launch his next big thing, NeXT Computer. And there was Pixar, which Jobs bought from George Lucas in 1986 after Lucas's divorce. Which turned out to be Jobs's far bigger next big thing, though few, including Jobs, realized it for a long time. Pixar revolutionized movies through computer animation and made Jobs a billionaire. Not bad for the sidelight post-Apple venture.
The main post-Apple venture, NeXT, never actually became the next big thing. The computer was gorgeous, but vastly too expensive. While Pixar percolated and NeXT languished -- though it was a seedbed for technology -- Apple flourished for a while before falling on hard times. Meantime, Jobs was in the wilderness.
I remember seeing him at the 1990 funeral of Bob Noyce, the co-founder of Intel and co-inventor of the integrated circuit, the foundation of Silicon Valley. Jobs had sought out Noyce, another McKenna client and friend, looking to learn from one of the great high tech pioneers. Noyce, a preternaturally cool character intrigued by youth culture in general and the wunderkind in particular, had reciprocated. Now he was dead, of a sudden and surprising heart attack at 62.
At this point, Jobs was more former than current, well into his wilderness years, his future disproof of Fitzgerald's famous dictum that there are no second acts in American lives by no means assured. Not at all the center of attention, Jobs was saddened by Noyce's death and chastened by life's ephemeral nature.
More to the point, he seemed more settled, less relentlessly the rock star. Which was fortunate, because he was not treated as a rock star. That had all faded away. He was suddenly easier to talk to. The question was how many wanted to talk with him.
Though it was not the next thing, NeXT had an impact and kept Jobs in the game and continuing to learn as technology evolved. Pixar helped Jobs learn how to work with giant corporations, in this case Disney. When Apple stalled out in the '90s, acquiring NeXT as a means of revamping Mac system software -- and bringing back Jobs -- became a compelling option. "Special advisor" Jobs, the prodigal son with the Promethean touch, returned. He quickly became "interim" CEO, making the title permanent a few years later in 2000.
This time, Jobs was ready to be CEO. He made the moves which proved to be not only revolutionary, as the original Mac was, but highly profitable and very synergistic, which it took years for the Mac to become. He was ready to use Apple to launch successive waves of revolutionary products.
Surprisingly, the movie doesn't delve into the wilderness years at all, other than to show Jobs -- who has suddenly and inexplicably found a lovely wife and reconciled with the daughter he disavowed early on -- about to emerge from them.
The movie seems to imply, but does not say, that the difference for Jobs at Apple the second time around is that everyone did as they were told.
I don't think that's true. My understanding is that Jobs, while always extremely strong-willed, respected creative push-back and accepted much of it.
I think something happened with Jobs during those wilderness years that made him a much better leader than he was pre-1985. In fact, I think it's pretty obvious.
But we get nothing on that in the movie, which in any event doesn't get beyond the introduction of the iPod as example of Jobs's profound impact. I like my iPod and I know it's around somewhere but, really now ...
Steve Wozniak gets a lot of play in the movie, too, and that's as it should be. To its credit, the film makes it clear that Jobs drafted off Woz a lot, giving him little credit, in the creation and founding success of Apple.
And while the character is well-played by Book of Mormon star Josh Gad, Woz comes off at times almost like a comedy sidekick.
He does get to deliver, while leaving Apple, a mournful speech to Jobs about why he is a massive jerk who doesn't get it and it's really sad, but Woz is actually a more interesting character than that, too.
I remember arranging a breakfast meeting with Woz and Gary Hart at San Francisco's Fairmont Hotel in 1985. Woz was a big Hart supporter when Hart made his breakthrough in the Democratic presidential primaries and was one of our delegates to the national convention. (Jobs was supportive but, as a personal friend of Jerry Brown -- who was studiously neutral as his Yale Law classmate Hart seized the presidential campaign opportunity he had hoped to have -- Jobs was much more stand-offish.) With Hart the frontrunner in the next election cycle, I wanted Woz to back our new think tank, which he did. But only after this encounter.
When I left the two of them to make some calls at the pay phone (mobile phones, what mobile phones?), the conversation seemed to be on my preferred track of R&D, educational reform, and yada yada, you know, those things that new pols today talk about as if they are, well, new in discussing the technologically-oriented future.
When I got back, they were debating whether or not life was better in pre-historic times, with Woz arguing that we aren't really doing better than cave men. And making some convincing points, at that.
It was simultaneously serious, seriously quirky, and seriously humorous all at once. We don't see that Woz in Jobs.
Next up, some time, will be West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin with a movie for Sony based at least in part on Walter Issacson's acclaimed biography, Steve Jobs. Now an Oscar-winner for The Social Network, his incisive and frequently sardonic view of the Facebook phenomenon, Sorkin is said to preparing a movie built around three great Jobs product introductions.
Which sounds like an interesting approach. Will it explain rather than simply depict Jobs? Will it get too caught up in the history of Apple? The good thing about a Sorkin script is that dialogue also works as story in a way that it frequently does not in other shows and films.
The proof, as they say, lies in the pudding. But as a huge West Wing fan I have a certain degree of faith, even if I do think The Newsroom is overly preachy and hard to watch on a topic, American cable news, which is largely a distracting sideshow in the great flow of history. If Sorkin "gets" Jobs as well as he did the title character in Charlie Wilson's War, we may be in for a treat.
As for Jobs, well, it's a creditable effort with a lot of good things in it. If you're at all interested in Apple or Jobs, perhaps in that order, you won't be bored.
You can check things during the day on my site, New West Notes ... www.newwestnotes.com.