Technologizer

An Apple History Nerd’s Take on the Jobs Movie

Ashton Kutcher is a convincing Steve Jobs in a film that gives Apple's other founder short shrift.

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Tom Munnecke / Getty Images

Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak -- the real ones -- at the West Coast Computer Faire in April 1977

WARNING: Possible spoilers below, especially if you don’t know anything about the history of Apple Computer, Inc.

Jobs, the movie starring Ashton Kutcher as Steve Jobs, doesn’t open until August 16. But I got to see it recently at a screening hosted by ReadWrite and the film’s distributor, Open Road Films. A Q&A with Kutcher and the director, Joshua Michael Stern, followed.

I was looking forward to the movie, but not because I expected any startling plot twists. I pretty much knew the story before I entered the theater: boy co-founds company, boy loses company, boy gets company back. And I’ve read dozens of books about Apple, from wonderfully illuminating ones to utter drek. There’s a lot I don’t know about Apple, but relatively little that’s been written down.

So I didn’t feel guilty about the fact that I sat there thinking like a student of Apple history as much as a movie fan. I wondered if the movie’s characterizations of Jobs and other key figures would jibe with reality; whether its recreation of the Apple world in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s would be both accurate and evocative; whether we’d come away with a deeper understanding of Steve Jobs and the company and products he and his colleagues built.

Josh Gad and Ashton Kutcher

Open Road Films

Josh Gad and Ashton Kutcher as Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs at the 1977 West Coast Computer Faire in Jobs

Here’s the best news about Jobs: Ashton Kutcher as Steve Jobs turns out not to have been stunt casting. He’s good. Maybe as good as anyone could be in a role that’s awesomely challenging given both the complexity of the character and the familiarity of his appearance, voice and general demeanor.

(At some point, we’ll get the chance to compare, in the Aaron Sorkin-scripted film based on Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs – a production which has yet to announce who’s playing Jobs.)

Kutcher isn’t doing a Rich Little-like impression of Apple’s co-founder. But he looks, sounds and moves enough like him that it’s easy to suspend disbelief. During the Q&A, he said that he studied for the role by creating a massive SoundCloud archive of Jobs audio and listening to it as he fell asleep at night.

Kutcher’s Jobs is so solid that you wish he was the main character in a better movie. Matt Whiteley’s screenplay has no tidy scene revealing that Jobs was difficult to deal with because he was adopted, or whatever. (We don’t see little Steve at all — the earliest scene is set at Reed College, the school Jobs dropped out of and then hung around at for a while.) That’s actually a plus: Lack of revelations is preferable to the sort of too-perfect explaining that Hollywood loves to graft onto a non-fiction tale whether it fits the facts or not. And I’m not sure if anyone who didn’t know Steve Jobs personally has that much to tell us about why he behaved the way he did.

But even a film that fails to tell all could go deeper than this TV-movie-writ-large does. It skims the surface of his story, checking off the character traits we already knew about: the visionary product sense, the perfectionism, the rudeness, the temper. With the exception of Ron Eldard’s Rod Holt, who designed the Apple II power supply, the early Apple employees depicted in the movie don’t do much beyond standing around. The guys who squeeze Jobs out of Apple — such as J.K. Simmons as venture capitalist Arthur Rock — are cartoony evil businessmen, which they weren’t in real life regardless of what you think about their stewardship of the company.

And then there’s the most important character other than Jobs: his Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, played by Josh Gad. Jobs doesn’t get him.

In Apple’s early days, Woz’s engineering genius was at least as important to the company as anything Jobs contributed, and, in its own way, as bold. You’d never guess that from movie Woz, who’s timid and lacking in imagination. In one 1970s scene — which the real Woz says is fantasy — movie Woz whimpers that nobody would want a personal computer:

That makes no sense. Woz was a member of the legendary Homebrew Computer Club, an organization of people who cared so much about computers that they built them from parts and wrote their own operating systems to run on them. The Homebrew members looked at themselves as helping to spark a revolution that would change everything. They did.

As Woz wrote in the memoir he coauthored with Gina Smith, iWoz:

Almost from the beginning, Homebrew had a goal: to bring computer technology within the range of the average person, to make it so people could afford to have a computer and do things with it. That had been my goal, too, for years and years before that. So I felt right at home there.

In another scene that gives Woz short shrift, Jobs and Woz demonstrate their Apple-1 computer at a Homebrew meeting. The geeks in the audience look bored to tears, if not downright contemptuous. I don’t know where that came from: If you’ve read Steven Levy’s indispensable book Hackers, you know that Woz was a revered hacker at Homebrew meetings and that his fellow members were not only interested in the Apple-1, but contributed ideas that he incorporated into its design.

If the Apple-1 had been as poorly received as Jobs makes out, the mopey demeanor of Gad’s Woz would make sense. But take a look at the photo at the top of this post, which was taken at the 1977 West Coast Computer Faire and which figures prominently in the movie. That’s the happy, mischievous, eccentric-but-self-confident Woz I’ve seen at numerous events around Silicon Valley. I wish he’d been a character in this movie.

As came up during the post-movie Q&A with Stern and Kutcher, Woz is consulting on the Sorkin/Isaacson movie and wasn’t involved with this one. But given that he told his side of the story in his book, it should still have been possible to make Woz more, well, Woz-like. Part of the problem may have been that the filmmakers wanted him to provide dramatic tension, which was at odds with reality: In an interview with TechCrunch, Gad said he was Steve Jobs’ conscience, “the Jiminy Cricket of the story.” The real Woz, whose first business with Jobs was selling blue boxes for making illegal free phone calls, was less of a conscience than a co-conspirator.

O.K., on to more nerdy computer-history stuff. You can see from the photo above of Kutcher and Gad as Jobs and Wozniak at the West Coast Compter Faire that the makers of Jobs strove, at least part of the time, for obsessive verisimilitude, down to the pattern of Jobs’ tie and the stuff sticking out of Woz’s pocket. Some of the other period details, like the recreation of Paul Terrell’s Byte Shop computer store, the first Apple dealer, are uncanny. But humor me and listen to these three nitpicky points:

  • At the start of the movie, when Jobs is telling Apple employees about a new music player, he calls it “the iPod.” It’s as discordant to hear him, or anyone associated with Apple, attach a “the” to a product name as it would be to hear Walt Disney refer to “the Mickey Mouse.”
  • I was also surprised by the film’s depiction — twice — of Jobs advocating, unsuccessfully, for the original Macintosh to sport more than 128KB of RAM. (That turned out to a woefully skimpy allotment, forcing the first Mac owners to shuffle floppy disks until their eyes glazed over.) The way I’ve always heard it, that non-expandable 128KB of memory reflected Jobs’ stubborn refusal to acknowledge that more was needed, a mistake which was later rectified with the 512KB “Fat Mac.”
  • I’m reasonably positive that the Radio Shack TRS-80, which I believe I spied shown being demonstrated at the 1977 West Computer Faire, is an anachronism: The conference took place in April and the computer wasn’t announced until August.

Of course, whether a particular computer is shown as having existed too early in 1977 has little bearing on whether Jobs is a good movie, and the mere fact that I’m fretting over it may mean that I know too much about the subject at hand.

I asked a few other folks who went to the screening — ones who knew less about Jobs’ backstory prior to his return to Apple — what they thought. They all liked the film better than I did, and said it contained stuff that was new to them. If a biopic pleases and informs people with a sketchy knowledge of its subject, it’s served a purpose. But for those who are already well-informed, Jobs is a recap, not a revelation. Maybe the Sorkin/Isaacson movie will have more to offer to folks who think they already know the whole story.

10 comments
cowboyesfan
cowboyesfan

The 128k was Job's decision.  The engineers secretly built the first Mac to allow 512k.

DeweySayenoff
DeweySayenoff

I can't help but wonder, in all honestly, who in the hell has a life so devoid of more important things to do and so filled with money that they'd blow 12 bucks and XX number of minutes to see a movie about Steve Jobs' life?

And then I think of the average Apple buyer and realize, it's probably them.  After all, anyone who would pay premium prices for decent, but hardly premium equipment, is definitely the target demographic for this film.

Of all the movies that have come out in the history of movie-making this one may replace Bambi as the least likely movie I'd ever want to even think about seeing.

NathanIsherwood
NathanIsherwood

@DeweySayenoff  You're a tool ! ... i thought about poking holes in your logic but the fact remains this is a THREAD ABOUT A MOVIE ABOUT A PERSONS LIFE AND PROFESSIONAL CAREER... Not a Mac vs. PC thread... Go back to your super gaming box and let the adults talk about the history of a company that is interesting not least because it is now the single biggest company in the world... I'd go to see a movie about Bill Gates life and career even though i hate Microsofts professional philosophy, it would be interesting to see how he and others SUCCEEDED in building a massive company.

spookiewriter
spookiewriter

I'm no fan of Apple. I refuse to pay $1,000 for a $400 laptop. But, Jobs must be rolling over in his grave with these new "we are just so cool" commercials being run. He didn't feel a need to throw this in anyone's face but simply knew Apple fans would simple know how cool the products were.

DarKbaldness
DarKbaldness

@spookiewriter Lol, $1,000 for a $400 laptop. Oh please. I have mowed through HP and Dell Laptops faster than the speed of light with broken cheap plastic cases, parts, HDD failures, dead pixels, Blue screens, trackpad malfunctions, keyboards not responding, internal fans breaking, batteries losing ability to charge, annoying and unnecessary flashing lights on the edges of keyboard, and much more. So about $2,500 later after having replaced and replaced and replaced crappy Windows laptops I rolled with a Macbook Air and since Apple actually has quality control I don't get ANY of those issues, and if I drop my Air and something inside gets broken I take it right back to SimplyMac or Apple Store and get a new one within a day.

DeweySayenoff
DeweySayenoff like.author.displayName 1 Like

@DarKbaldness@spookiewriter -laughs and laughs and laughs-

I had to stop to catch my breath.  You're touting Apple equipment as being in any way superior to other products, then you say, "I drop my Air and something inside gets broken I take it right back to SimplyMac or Apple Store and get a new one within a day."

No WONDER your other equipment broke.  You don't know how to take care of it.   It's not the EQUIPMENT that's any better.  YOU WERE JUST TOO CHEAP TO SPRING FOR THE EXTENDED "NO FAULT WARRANTIES" that you end up paying for when you buy Apple products whether you want it or not!!!

And you don't get back your data, either.

-shakes head-

To everyone else: This is why people think Apple products are better.  They break as often as other products.  But Apple forces you to buy the equivalent of an "extended warranty" in its pricing structure (and has a mandatory 30% profit margin for pretty much everything).  That means you get a new one if it breaks.  Most extended warranties do the same thing.  If you want "Apple-like" satisfaction with other products, you can waste your money and buy an extended warranty.  You'll pay as much for a device of similar quality as Apple and get the same service without their "geniuses" treating you like a moron.

MC_Flurry105
MC_Flurry105

I meant I'm so excited because its released on my birthday... #August 16

MC_Flurry105
MC_Flurry105

Im so excuted ut comes out on my birthday

jssk
jssk

I'm generally okay with movie writers giving up historic accuracy in way of telling a better story. But I think this movie, from the online clips I've seen, turns out to be too simplistic a story. Steve is a ideas man who knows nothing about the technology, Woz a robotic nerdy technician with no interest in, well, anything he does. And, as I never saw the movie, but the author just confirmed, the senior executives are all heartless d-bags. That's just too simplistic a premise. It ruins the whole story, and the main hero. It's almost like they are so afraid the audience won't get the story, they made it like they are telling it to a five year old.

I'm not that big of a fan of Aaron Sorkin's movies, (his TV shows are pretty awesome) but now I'm kind of looking forward to his Jobs movie, mainly because this one is looking to be quite underwhelming.