Steve Jobs, which I've seen three times now, is a curious and entertaining film. Until recently seen as a top Oscar favorite, it's also proved to be a shocking box office bomb, falling away to virtually nothing just now after only its third weekend in general release.
In some respects, an exhilarating, incisive, insightful and fascinating examination of high tech visionary and Apple co-founder Steve Jobs at three key junctures in both his own all too short life and the course of global technology, it is also a distorted, downbeat, cloying, and claustrophobic piece of work that, fortunately, maddens less often than it satisfies. Hard as it is to typify, it's perhaps not a surprise that audiences have not taken to the very high-profile prestige project. That's especially so given the foolishness of the film's marketing and distribution.
Highly anticipated given the subject and the authorship of West Wing auteur Aaron Sorkin, whose Oscar-winning screenplay for The Social Network showed a strong feel for the tech world, boasting a justly hyped title performance by Michael Fassbender, Steve Jobs has proved instead a disappointment. Its mostly very strong reviews were followed by charges of distortion and fabrication from key elements of the Apple world.
After a very strong showing in a few theaters in New York and Los Angeles, the film's platformed release went wide two weeks later to results much less than industry forecasts, even after those were rapidly downsized from the low $20 million opening weekend range to just over half that. In the event, the film garnered only $7.1 million in its first weekend of wide release. In its second weekend in national release, the film plunged 62 percent to only $2.7 million. And this past weekend, with the new James Bond spectacular Spectre and others suddenly adding theaters, Steve Jobs lost more than 80 percent of its screens, plunging to under $1 million for the weekend.
A trailer for Steve Jobs.
Despite a strong A- CinemaScore and powerful, critically acclaimed performances by Michael Fassbender and Kate Winslet, Steve Jobs just hasn't caught on. In fact, it's barely bested the widely panned and much lower budget Jobs, starring Ashton Kutcher, of a couple years back.
What the hell happened? Some spoilers ensue.
Well, let's start with the obvious, which will in turn lead to deeper problems. The launch of Steve Jobs is an epic fail. Ironic, in that Jobs himself was the ultimate event marketer. Doubly so, given that the film is structured entirely around three classic product launches: The 1984 launch of the Macintosh, the 1988 launch of the NeXT workstation, and the 1998 launch of the iMac.
You don't put a film garnering mostly across-the-board critical hosannas into only four theaters and then wait two weeks before opening it wide across the nation. Not when the film is going to be dismissed as factually inaccurate by key associates of your subject who are also important thought leaders for what has to be much if not most of your target audience.
The film's backers should not have been surprised, since Jobs's widow Laurene Powell Jobs reportedly called both Leonardo DiCaprio and Christian Bale (in my opinion the ideal casting and once seemingly set in the role) to urge them not to play her husband.
So when Apple CEO Tim Cook, Apple design chief and longtime Jobs collaborator Sir Jony Ives, and a number of journalists and older Jobs associates all dismissed the film with varying degrees of rhetoric, this was a decided negative for the sometimes cult-like Apple devotees who might otherwise be expected to go see the movie.
Meanwhile, the heat of all those positive reviews -- many written by folks who simply don't know much about the subject matter, not incidentally -- was allowed to dissipate.
In addition, the marketing made the film look negative, downbeat, and dialogue-heavy, all problematic for a mass audience, especially one drawing on Apple users. A recent trailer showed Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak ripping into Jobs saying, among other things, that he "stole the operating system" for Macintosh. Something the real Woz disavows, since Jobs gained access to R&D on a graphical user interface as part of a contractual agreement with Xerox to do just that. Xerox, not incidentally, put out its own GUI computer, the Xerox Star, three years before the Mac. It failed. The Mac worked because Jobs and company made many changes to the concept Jobs encountered in Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center. Later, of course, Microsoft, then the industry leader with its MS-DOS operating system, came out with its version of the Macintosh OS, Windows.
Since I was actually present at two of the three events depicted in Steve Jobs -- the launches of the original Macintosh and the NeXT workstation -- I was especially interested in the film. And I found the film especially interesting. I wouldn't have watched it three times otherwise.
But, while it may or may not get at deeper truths about Jobs -- in my opinion, though I was only acquainted with Jobs, in some ways yes, in other ways no -- most of what you see in the film did not actually happen. I wasn't backstage at either of the launches I attended, though my then future boss Regis McKenna, the real-life PR/marketing mentor of Jobs who actually employed one of the film's characters, was. But then, unlike McKenna -- who at that time was my responsibility in Gary Hart's presidential campaign and whom I later served as assistant to the chairman at his famous PR firm -- most of the people in the movie weren't backstage, either. I've had no affiliation with Apple for decades, and had this to say after Jobs died.
One of the first times Steve Jobs introduced the legendary 1984 ad.
Andi Cunningham, seen frequently in Steve Jobs as his PR operative, was the very effective head of the Apple account team at Regis McKenna. McKenna himself (as his puckish business cards said), whose firm came up with something you've seen millions of times, i.e., the Apple logo, was the only outside consultant to serve on the Apple executive staff and was a valued counselor to Jobs through the decades, having taken on Apple when it was still Jobs and co-founder Steve Wozniak in the Jobs family garage. Jobs sought out McKenna after learning that ad work he admired for Intel was done by McKenna's eponymous firm, the premiere PR agency in Silicon Valley.
Despite being officially based on Walter Isaacson's widely praised biography, also called Steve Jobs -- for which Sony, which dropped the project off to Universal Pictures, paid seven figures for the movie rights -- Steve Jobs the movie is not really a biographical film. Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin acknowledged this to longtime Apple chronicler Steve Levy, whose assessment of the the iMac is quoted in the movie. "It's not a biopic, it's something else," declares Sorkin. Which Levy rather kindly describes as an artistic portrait.
What it really is is a three-act play in which Steve Jobs keeps trying to introduce the future only to be constantly confronted, just as he is preparing to go on stage, by the various ghosts of Christmas Past.
Needless to say, nothing like this happened in real life. It's all playwright Sorkin's rather Dickensian-style attempt to toss marbles under Jobs's feet to reveal the writer's view of his character.
In all this, Jobs doesn't actually sound that much like Jobs, either. Which is perfectly fine for a fictional character like, say, Jed Bartlett, the main character in what is, along with Mad Men, my all-time favorite televisions series, as I've noted on a few occasions. Including this piece in which I express some relief that the tie for most best drama Emmys, a record shared by Mad Men and The West Wing, wasn't broken this year.
But Jobs is not a fictional character, he's a real figure from history. Which Sorkin's script gets at, albeit in incomplete fashion, by prefacing the three acts with a clip featuring 2001: A Space Odyssey author Arthur C. Clarke.
Clarke, a science fiction author and tech visionary who essentially invented the communications satellite, foresaw how a future in which there would be widespread use of distributed computer terminals, if not computers of one's very own, would be a game-changer for society. But the film doesn't really follow up on that beyond some Jobs rhetoric.
It's troubling that most of what happens in Sorkin's three-act structure didn't really happen. Still, I appreciate and often enjoy what he is trying to do, even when I think the point he is trying to make is wrong.
Nevertheless, Sorkin's approach runs up against diminishing returns fairly early on.
It works best in the first act around the 1984 launch of the Mac. Even though what's portrayed mostly did not happen. I did have a moment when Kate Winslet's character introduced herself as the marketing manager for the Mac, finding myself talking back to the screen: "No, you're not."
Winslet makes an indelible impression playing Joanna Hoffman, in real life a key player on the Mac team who won in-house awards for her ability to stand up to the sometimes tirade-prone Jobs and later became Apple's head of manufacturing. But the film presents her as Jobs's omnipresent number two, his "work wife" as she describes herself in Act Three (at which point in real life she was not around), and nothing like that was true.
As in a stage play, Sorkin concentrates on only a few characters, assigning actions and statements to them carried out by others. Well, if most of this had actually happened.
Still, Jobs's ultra-perfectionist attention to detail, very demanding attitude, and easily provoked sense of personal grievance are on accurate if circumstantially invented display in Act One. It's smart and frequently funny stuff, capturing much of Jobs's self-justifying sense of world-changing mission, though the film does a surprisingly poor job of explaining why the Mac actually did sharply alter the direction of computing.
And there is both telling magic and pathos around Jobs's interaction with his 5-year old daughter out of wedlock and her angry mother, an ex-Jobs girlfriend. Though of course nothing like that happened backstage at De Anza College right before the Mac launch in what we laughingly call real life.
The film does an effective job of dramatizing the complex dynamic through which Jobs, suddenly bitterly feuding with handpicked CEO John Sculley, his supposed compadre, left Apple the year after the Mac was introduced. That was something which had to happen because Jobs then was too erratic, in his determinedly rock star mode, to be a constructive enough force in the company.
The film, however, errs in calling the Mac a failure. In its first incarnation, it seriously underperformed Jobs's wildly hyped forecast, due to it being not useful enough (Jobs's problem) and overpriced (Sculley's problem). The Mac, however, quickly became a very successful product, albeit a more expensive niche player than Jobs had fantasized. That's why people have been buying Macs for nearly 32 years now.
Things become more problematic for Sorkin's approach in Act Two, which is especially well-staged by Oscar-winning director Danny Boyle at another real life location, the San Francisco Opera House. There, at the site of the founding conference of the United Nations, Jobs introduced the gorgeous first product of his first post-Apple company, NeXT Computers, in 1988.
The NeXT workstation was a stunning black cube, a gleaming slab of tech over-designed and wildly over-priced for the higher education market. I attended this launch as a columnist, and it was evident that Jobs had indulged his technical and aesthetic predilections well beyond the commercially feasible.
Sorkin does a wonderful job of revealing just how unready this product was to launch, never mind how ready Jobs was to launch it. The ghosts of Christmas Past -- Woz, Sculley, now 9-year old Lisa and her angry mom Christen -- are again present, of course, saying and doing things that didn't get said or done.
But it's with someone who was there, Joanna Hoffman, that Sorkin has Jobs reveal that NeXT was really part of his master plan to return to Apple and take it over. NeXT is "the Steve Jobs revenge machine," as Winslet's character puts it.
This is interesting speculation, but ... no. In reality, it would be nearly a decade before Jobs would return to Apple. Only when Apple had such a convoluted product line that I couldn't keep track of it, and only after Jobs had developed and shown his newfound maturity with Pixar -- a crucial Jobs triumph that goes unmentioned in the film -- would he be in a position to return in a position of leadership.
Apple did acquire NeXT in the process, and some NeXT tech was helpful to Apple's turnaround, but NeXT was something other than Sorkin suggests.
I'm sure of this because I ran into Jobs at the 1990 funeral of Bob Noyce, the Intel co-founder and inventor of the integrated circuit who was an important mentor to Jobs. The memorial was a tremendous show of respect and admiration for a true American pioneer.
Jobs was alone when I encountered him, utterly lacking his previous rock star aura. He seemed a bit agog at the showing for Noyce, which was the sort of thing Jobs could not then have hoped to command. "Even you came," he remarked, with his trademark diplomacy.
This was nearly two years after the NeXT product launch depicted in the film. Jobs showed absolutely no sign of someone in the midst of a master plan to seize control of Apple and take the heights of the tech world. In fact, he acted like a once hyper-ambitious 35-year old who has topped out in life at a very early age and is wondering what it all meant.
NeXT had flopped, though it would struggle on for years. Jobs was doing something potentially interesting with a little company called Pixar, a computer imaging division of Lucasfilm which he'd acquired in 1986 from a divorce-wracked George Lucas for a song, but it wasn't clear what might come of it.
Steve Jobs introduces the Macintosh for the first time.
By 1998, when we next see Jobs in the film, Pixar had evolved from the purveyor of very high-end computer imaging systems to the best animation studio in the world. The Pixar IPO following Toy Story is the development which gives Jobs the billionaire status suddenly referred to in Act Three.
Here he's launching the iMac, the product in which his ideas of intriguingly memorable design, elegant ease of use, and tremendous affordable power and functionality come together with great success in a computer designed for a then fast emerging Internet.
It's the immediate forerunner for a series of big game-changers Jobs will roll out in rapid succession over the next decade -- iPod, iTunes, iPhone, iPad -- which transform mobile communications and computing and the consumer end of the music and movie businesses.
Where in Act One Jobs is at the funkily functional confines of De Anza College's Flint Center for the Performing Arts not far from Apple HQ in Cupertino, and in Act Two he is in the gilt-and-gold Beaux Arts splendor of San Francisco's historic War Memorial Opera House, here he is amidst the elegant yet more relaxed modernism of San Francisco's Davies Symphony Hall.
As literature and, especially, performance, it's a wonderful Act Three. But I see why Laurene Powell Jobs reportedly wanted to shut down the movie. For it proceeded on a false premise about the reality of Jobs's life.
It pretends that Jobs is not happily married and the father of three more kids, with Lisa living with them all in blended family mode throughout her high school years.
Here again we see Jobs, wanting once more to present the future, being confronted by the ghosts of Christmas Past, none of whom were actually there in real life.
Woz shows up again to support his old friend and again urges Jobs to acknowledge the great work of the Apple II division. Rather than tell Woz the obvious, that in the real world Apple stopped selling the Apple II over five years earlier, hence there are no Apple II leaders to recognize, he denigrates them as lightweights.
Sculley and Jobs reminisce and ponder what-ifs.
Key Mac engineer Andy Hertzfeld tangles with Jobs over his relationship with Lisa, now 19.
And Lisa herself shows up to complain, prod, and ultimately inspire her dad.
It's edgy, frequently lovely stuff, culminating wonderfully in a scene atop my favorite parking garage in San Francisco, in the middle of an urban canyon nonetheless suffused with light, with vistas of the City by the Bay peeking through the skyscrapers.
But hold on a second.
In real life, Lisa, far from being off all this time dealing with her disaffected mom, Jobs's long-ago girlfriend, still the only Jobs love interest mentioned in the film, has actually come to live with Jobs, his wife and siblings. Then Jobs helped her get into Harvard, from which she will go on to graduate.
That's an awfully big difference from the still alienated scenario presented in the film.
Why is she showing up to interrupt Jobs right before the critical foundational product launch of his extraordinarily successful return as Apple CEO? Why not talk to him at their home in Palo Alto?
There's no especially good answer for this, other than it's a movie.
In other words, Jobs, despite still being a very difficult perfectionist, is a much more integrated person than the film portrays him to be. He does get there, sort of, in the end at the end of Steve Jobs, but as a result of the invented confrontations.
Here we see him seeming to conceive of the iPod, the product that was to place Apple Computer on the path to being just plain Apple, and much bigger in the result, ultimately the most valuable company in the world. It's a lovely, even lyrical moment that brought tears to my eyes. Even as I knew it to be false.
That's great writing, performance, and staging, folks, even though it's anything but great biography.
Sorkin is right that a biopic can be a bore, that a more artistic portrait may be best. But artistry and accuracy can go hand in hand.
One needn't look any further than one of Steve Jobs's favorite movies in real life.
Patton, which Jobs watched for inspiration as he was being ousted/ousting himself from Apple in 1985, isn't a traditional biopic, either. We don't see little Georgie Patton stirring to the sound of trumpets, or young George Patton chasing Pancho Villa or competing in the Olympics.
We meet him in media res, delivering one of the most famous and outrageous speeches in the history of American cinema. (Oddly, we never see one of Jobs's stem-winders, which influenced Robert Downey's sensational portrayal of Tony Stark aka Iron Man.) We then follow him episodically in World War II, through triumphs, disasters, redemption, and untimely death.
He's brilliant, he's inspiring, he's despicable, he's driven, he's kooky and more than a little nuts, he's an arrogant asshole, he's a cool customer who understands his limitations and works in the end to try to transcend them with fully succeeding. Sound familiar?
No wonder Jobs, hippie though he'd been and in some ways still was -- which we don't get in Steve Jobs, the film mostly ignoring its subject's counter-cultural and Zen predilections, not to mention the whole San Francisco Bay Area cultural brew which produced Apple -- loved Patton. He was the renegade general who had to do things his way, proved right, and loyal, in the end.
Best thing of all about Patton and its Oscar-winning Francis Ford Coppola screenplay is that it is very historically accurate. The invented portions are all consistent with fact. As well as any emotional truths intended by the filmmakers.
Steve Jobs lies somewhere in between Patton and Inglourious Basterds, which rewrites world history by having Adolf Hitler assassinated in a Paris movie theater.
Not that anyone took the quirky the Quentin Tarantino epic as anything like history.
If Steve Jobs is a problematic yet consistently entertaining and intellectually engaging tale about a historical figure, there's no doubt that it boasts some extremely strong performances. While Christian Bale, the best fit for the role in terms of looks and persona, and Leonardo DiCaprio would have brought serious star power to bear, the performance of Michael Fassbender, who is not yet a movie star, as Jobs is nonetheless very powerful.
Fassbender doesn't really represent the counter-cultural side of Jobs, the role isn't written that way. He does a tremendous job of projecting Jobs's charisma, command, intelligence, anger, and intuition. His powerful presentation of some aspects of Jobs clearly deserves an Oscar nomination for best actor.
Kate Winslet is not as corruscatingly brilliant in her heavily invented part, but she provides the depth, intelligence, and resonance needed to anchor this conception of the Jobs story. She's certainly seems worthy of a best supporting actress nomination.
Tony Stark aka Iron Man, portrayed by Robert Downey, Jr. with Jobs-ian bow tie, does a totally amped product launch of his own, the Stark World Expo in Iron Man 2.
Seth Rogen does an excellent job of capturing Woz, the inventor of the first commercially successful personal computer, the Apple II. If there is no Woz, there is no Jobs or Apple, something that in real life Woz always remembered and Jobs generally wanted to forget.
Rogen doesn't quite capture the Woz combination of almost inchoate hyper-brilliance and naivete, but he plays the role as conceived very well.
Jeff Daniels is also quite good as John Sculley, though he is somewhat miscast. Daniels, of course, has played many roles, including the lead in Sorkin's recently concluded The Newsroom, which I never got into as I stopped paying much attention to American cable news years ago.
Sorkin did a very good job conceiving Sculley, who was, like Jobs and unlike Daniels, a lean and hungry type, very ambitious in the material world yet driven by aspirations/conceits about visionary leadership.
Steve Jobs the man was famous for generating a "reality distortion field" -- a term not coined, despite what the film says, by Joanna Hoffman -- to sell his version of things. Steve Jobs the movie generates its own reality distortion field to sell its version of Jobs the man. Which is very much on target in some ways, wildly off the mark in others. This is very much a playwright's film, not a historian's.
With a grasp of the subject matter, it's not that hard to sharpshoot the problems of this movie, which might have been solved with a strong creative producer or an engaged and knowledgeable studio head.
Perhaps the film should have been titled something like Apple of His Eye rather than Steve Jobs to clearly differentiate it from the Walter Isaacson biography of the same name for which the studio paid so much for the film rights.
The film's structure is intriguing, but for it to be more anchored in reality beyond a frequently fanciful Dickensian morality play, some judicious use of flashback would probably be required.
But we are where we are with Steve Jobs.
If you want to know how and why Jobs developed his particular intersection of art and tech, how a Zen Buddhist non-materialist can be selfish, how a man who prided himself on building state-of-the-art factories in California came to outsource to China, you might look elsewhere.
If you want an intelligent, entertaining, certainly arguable opinion about what made Jobs tick, delivered with brilliant dialogue, beautiful staging, and powerful performances, you have Steve Jobs. It's much better than most feature films.
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