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.