OK, let’s review the movie. Steve Jobs is constructed in the traditional Greek model with three acts, each taking place before Jobs is scheduled to step in front of a wondering world to unveil his latest wonder device. Kate Winslett’s Joanna Hoffman plays the part of a one-woman chorus, admonishing, hectoring, and advising Jobs as he prepares to take the stage.
The first act takes place in the minutes running up to the unveiling of the original Macintosh and it’s the best part of the movie. The camera work and dialogue accurately convey the nervous energy and tension that build up before a significant high-tech launch (I speak from personal experience in this regard). There’s an ongoing bit of dramatic shtick revolving around Andy Hertzfeld and whether the Macintosh is going to be able to perform its famous “It sure is great to get out of that bag” patter at its unveiling. (This didn’t happen, but it is amusing.)
There’s also a scene with Jobs grousing at great length about Daniel Kottke and his perfidy in spoiling Jobs’ chance to be Time’s Man of the Year (the award went to a paper mache dummy). This injustice has occurred because Kottke has confirmed to a reporter that Jobs indeed has a daughter. (This didn’t happen at the launch, though it’s true Kottke did tell the truth about Lisa.) Just to help out all you budding young Steve Jobs wannabes out there, siring or birthing a child is inherently a public act. You have zero, zilch, nada, no rights to privacy in this regard. Still, at this point, the film is moving along nicely.
Unfortunately, the movie magic is short lived. Midway through act one, Chrisann Brennan and daughter Lisa show up at the launch. (This didn’t happen.) Lisa, of course, is so sweet and adorable she makes your teeth ache from sugar shock. While Chrisann and Jobs begin to squabble about paternity and child support, Jobs sneaks in an opportunity to introduce little Lisa to the Mac and the mouse and I bet you just can’t guess what happens next. Well, I’ll tell you. She draws a picture and is enchanted by the internal creativity she’s just released through the power of the computer! Who would have guessed it? (This didn’t happen. At the time of the Macintosh launch, Lisa was five and Jobs didn’t step up to the plate as her father until she was nine, just around the time DNA testing was coming into widespread use.)
At this point, I realized I’d stumbled into Steve Jobs: The Lifetime Movie and was in trouble. To my relief, Lisa soon exited the scene stage right, but I knew she’d be back. I was right.
Next up in act one, Steve Wozniak appears to implore Steve Jobs to do a quick shout out to the Apple II side of the company during the Macintosh roll out. They argue about this and the Apple II’s expansion slots. While this didn’t happen, I’ll grant Sorkin a little creative license here. The development of the Macintosh did split Apple into two warring camps. While Steve Jobs was flying a pirate flag over one building at One Infinite Loop, the Apple II was flying the revenue flag over the rest of the place and Wozniak and the Apple II crew resented mightily the Macintosh crowd’s pretensions. And Wozniak has been publicly quoted as saying the first Mac was a lousy machine.
The rest of act one proceeds down the expected course, with John Sculley showing up to provide Jobs some fatherly advice and dime store psychology backstage. The film then proceeds to a grim montage of darkly shot scenes of slumping Mac sales and an unhappy board of directors. Act one ends, as it did in real life, with Jobs departing Apple after receiving an executive neutering at John Sculley’s hands. (Maybe if Sculley had been around earlier with his knife, the Lisa problem might never have arisen. OK, yes, that crack’s unfair, but I’m still cranky about the movie.)
At this point, my personal jury was still out on Steve Jobs, but then the second act began and a quantum disruption bomb was detonated in the theater. When my eyes had recovered from the dazzle effect, I was staring on screen at a film that been made on a sound stage somewhere out in the multiverse. Almost nothing I was watching ever happened in this space-time realm.
We’ve been whisked to 1988 and the roll out of the NeXT Cube. (Yes, this actually happened, but multiverse theories allow for overlapping events to occur across the branes.) There’s Steve prepping and preening for the big reveal. There’s Joanna chorusing her little heart out with witty badinage. And O Boy, yes, no avoiding it, there’s little Lisa at nine years old entering stage left. She’s still adorable and she and Steve have a cute bit about how Lisa is supposed to be at school, and how’s things with your mom and on and on. While this didn’t happen, a scene similar to it was shot during an episode of Leave it to Beaver. Or maybe Father Knows Best. Or perhaps a Lifetime Movie whose name I can’t recall, nor is it necessary I do so because all Lifetime movies are the same.
Then Steve Wozniak shows up and the two Steves have a bromance moment, with each telling the other they love them. (Swear to god, you can read it in the screenplay for yourself.) I watched this scene sideways through my fingers, but was comforted by the fact that it never happened. Steve Wozniak also takes the opportunity to inform Steve Jobs that the NeXT cannot succeed because it’s going to cost ten freaking thousand dollars, which was true across the entire Many Worlds. Chrisann shows up, more child support complaints, and then we take a complete right turn into a parallel dimension when a multiverse alternate John Sculley shows up to complain that his kids hate him because he fired Steve Jobs.
Now, even in the multiverse, this didn’t happen. The facts are that in 1988, John Sculley was turning into an Apple Sales Hero because of a certain Frenchman whom history has not given enough credit. Let us learn more about zis person:
Jean-Louis Gassée. In many respects, Gassée was responsible for the ultimate success of the Macintosh platform as he drove (and hid its existence from Steve Jobs until after he left the company) the development of the Macintosh II, an “open” system that rejected many of Jobs’ original design mandates but sold extremely well. After yet another Apple power struggle, Gassée left the company in 1990 and founded Be, Inc. Be’s principal product was the BeOS, which was powerful and ahead of its time. Gassée was in the happy position of being first in line to sell his company and the OS to Apple in the 1996 timeframe as the company was in desperate need of an upgrade to the Mac OS and had proven incapable of developing one internally. Unfortunately, Gassée could not stop himself from being French and annoying and the deal broke down, to the happiness of Steve Jobs and NeXT, who swooped in and took advantage of the opportunity.
From the Glossary of People, Selling Steve Jobs’ Liver: A Story of Startups, Innovation, and Connectivity in the Clouds. (I wrote this novel. Shameless plug—it’s much better than the movie. And more accurate.)
Also, would you be interested in knowing that the NeXT OS did not morph into OS X until 2001, thirteen years later? No? Sorry for the distraction.
As is appropriate for a section of the movie in which Steve Jobs is becoming ridiculous, at the end of act two he transforms into a Lifetime Movie Evil Guy (there’s usually one in every film) and chortlingly announces to Joanna that the NeXT computer has no operating system because…well…Apple will simply have to buy his company because everyone will be so amazed because the NeXT box…doesn’t work. Or something. The dialog block literally sounded like someone had translated English into what they speak on the Superman Bizarro World.
At this moment, my focus on the movie was interrupted by a quantum vision, no doubt a lingering after effect of the bomb detonated earlier. For just a second, I was able to gaze across the multiverse at all the alternate realities in which NeXT actually did release its box without an OS and in every instance, when enraged purchasers realized their systems had all the functionality of a magnesium baseball catcher’s face mask, they tied Steve Jobs to an altar made of $10K NeXT cubes and set fire to him. It was a quantum tragedy.
Act three of the movie takes place in 1998 and Steve Jobs is back in control of Apple, after having knifed former CEO Gil Amelio in the back, though to be fair, Amelio deserved it. (This did happen, but the movie doesn’t mention it.) We’re at the launch of the first iMac, which is Bondi Blue and translucent. I owned an iMac, the graphite model with the PowerPC G3 667MHZ chip and it was something of a “meh” system, but lots of people liked those computers and it sold pretty darn well, though the best it could do was stabilize the company’s perilous financials.
As the scenes spun up, I swallowed most of the throw-up that had accumulated in the back of my throat and waited for Lisa to reappear. But first, Joanna shows up for chorus duties. (She wasn’t there, having not followed Jobs back to Apple and leaving the industry.) Then Lisa enters the scene stage left, now almost all grown up, attractive, and still cute as the dickens.
People start talking and of course most of the dialog is now focused on Lisa and her Daddy Issues, which are all very important because this is a Lifetime movie and these issues need to be resolved in that inimitable Lifetime fashion, and there are only so many running minutes left in which to accomplish this. This perhaps accounts for the fact that the film never mentions that Steve Jobs in real life is now married and has three kids with his wife. (And there’s also this book by Chrisann Brennan that describes Jobs’ interaction with Lisa in ways that sometimes make you cringe and are certainly not your usual Lifetime movie material.)
The back and forth between daddy and daughter is interrupted a couple of times. In one scene, the fake John Sculley slinks by and sheepishly offers Jobs a Newton as an act of expiation for the neutering. (This didn’t happen.) Steve Jobs takes another swipe at Daniel Kottke, who appears to have become Jobs’ personal Javert for the whole Man of the Year fiasco. (This didn’t happen.) Then Steve Wozniak ambles onto the set for the last time and the film spits on its final opportunity to be even a little bit good as we’re forced to board The Nadir Express and descend into sheer idiocy.
Wozniak has shown up to implore Jobs to atone for his earlier sin of not granting recognition to the Apple II during the Macintosh rollout by not laying off the Apple II engineers. Jobs absolutely refuses to do this, but who can blame him? You see, Apple discontinued all Apple II models in 1992 and 1993, five years before the iMac launch, while John Sculley still ran the place, and what Steve Jobs is introducing today is a colored translucent computer, not a time machine. Wozniak, apparently unaware of this rift in the space-time continuum, proceeds to say some mean things about his Apple co-founder and grumps out of the camera frame.
The scene then shifts to the rooftop of the building where the iMac roll-out will take place, with Lisa back in front of the lens. The Full Lifetime is thrown at us as Steve Jobs heroically offers to not appear on stage and stay on the roof with Lisa so he can read one of her essays. Lisa tells her daddy not to be silly, they have a patented tender Lifetime Daddy/Daughter Moment, and the movie ends.
Well, almost. In a final insult to temporal causality, Redeemed Daddy Steve Jobs spots Lisa’s Walkman and tells her about the iPod (this didn’t happen), which was released late in 2001, four years in the future and after companies such as Saehan/Eiger and others had already released digital music players. Then, the movie really ends.