The "Jobs" movie starring Ashton Kutcher that debuted Friday is not as bad as many reviewers say it is. It's actually a decent if semi-accurate biopic that depicts Jobs's flaws only when it serves the plot, then whitewashes its hero where it serves the movie's purposes -- which is as much to tell the story of Apple as it is to profile Jobs. But "Jobs" misses the Steve Jobs story that should have been told and ultimately does a disservice to the remarkable redemption he experienced.
I've followed Apple since 1991, when I joined the staff of Macworld magazine as its "PC guy." Jobs had long been fired as CEO, and the company under John Sculley had lost its way. Sculley had created a chasm between the marketing message and the reality of the products. Later, when Michael Spindler became CEO, the company became a walking insult to the initial Apple vision, producing crappy PCs that even the PC clone makers of the time would have thought twice about releasing.
In the fall of 1996, I met with Jonathan Ive, who had recently been hired by Apple -- and, of course, is Apple's current senior vice president of design. Ive was clearly a brilliant but beaten-up designer with terrific ideas, none of which Apple was implementing. "Jobs" the movie is right to showcase Jobs's discovery of Ive as the kind of creative partner needed to reinvent Apple in the way we all think of it today.
I get the appeal of a storyline that culminates in the 1997 return of Jobs after he engineered the firing of then-CEO Gil Amelio, a man smart enough to seek Jobs's help earlier that year, but not smart enough to realize he couldn't fix Apple and would have to step aside for any real change to occur.
But the focus on the founding of Apple and the development of the Mac, with a fast-forward to a struggling Apple that seeks Jobs's help, isn't the story that should have been made into a movie about Jobs the man.
There's a great book that tells the story of Apple's early years and another that tells the whole story of Steve Jobs's life. The first, "Accidental Empires," is by InfoWorld's own Robert X. Cringely, and the second is Walter Isaacson's "Steve Jobs." The movie covers mainly the "Accidental Empires" period, but misses the powerful Jobs story line that played out later.
"Jobs" the movie portrays the man as a brilliant but difficult visionary who had the cunning and force of will to get what he wanted and to inspire people to deliver beyond their own expectations -- which is true, as far as it goes. The movie, though, provides only a few examples of how cruel Jobs could be, such as the scene where he kicks out his pregnant girlfriend and later denies that the child could be his -- because he was just starting Apple and couldn't handle the distractions of being a parent. There are several scenes where he grows cold to one-time friends and cuts them off, and one vignette at Atari (which never happened, by the way, just as several other major scenes that never happened, such as Steve Wozniak's goodbye) showncases his rudeness.
Those character flaws are all true, but missing are the explosions of abuse he would hurl on friends and coworkers, as well as the utter ruthlessness he would use to hurt his enemies. Instead, the mean scenes in the movie are ultimately used to set up a "why Jobs was ultimately right" segment.
The firing of Macintosh project lead Jef Raskin is a great example. In the movie, Raskin is shown as an ineffective manager who couldn't accept Jobs's takeover of the project after the Lisa fiasco -- which the movie doesn't seem to realize was named after the daughter Jobs had abandoned. The implication is that Raskin had to go for the Mac to succeed. In truth, as "Accidental Empires" details, Raskin helped lay the groundwork for the Mac, and Jobs's removal of Raskin was far less clean or honest.
Furthermore, the Wozniak character in "Jobs" is a rube, not the co-visionary and partner that he was in fact. The Woz portrayal is both inaccurate and insulting, all to make Jobs look better. Jobs didn't need a weak Woz to be strong, and the two in fact fed off each other (as Jobs and Ive later did), but the filmmakers sadly decided to make everyone else inferior to Jobs.