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'Steve Jobs,' the movie, paints a blurry portrait of Apple's co-founder

Commentary: The creative team behind the new film says it wanted to create something akin to an Impressionist painting rather than a "photo" of Apple's mercurial leader. It is that: pretty but very blurry.

Connie Guglielmo SVP, AI Edit Strategy
Connie Guglielmo is a senior vice president focused on AI edit strategy for CNET, a Red Ventures company. Previously, she was editor in chief of CNET, overseeing an award-winning team of reporters, editors and photojournalists producing original content about what's new, different and worth your attention. A veteran business-tech journalist, she's worked at MacWeek, Wired, Upside, Interactive Week, Bloomberg News and Forbes covering Apple and the big tech companies. She covets her original nail from the HP garage, a Mac the Knife mug from MacWEEK, her pre-Version 1.0 iPod, a desk chair from Next Computer and a tie-dyed BMUG T-shirt. She believes facts matter.
Expertise I've been fortunate to work my entire career in Silicon Valley, from the early days of the Mac to the boom/bust dot-com era to the current age of the internet, and interviewed notable executives including Steve Jobs. Credentials
  • Member of the board, UCLA Daily Bruin Alumni Network; advisory board, Center for Ethical Leadership in the Media
Connie Guglielmo
6 min read

You know how sometimes when you've read the book, you don't like the movie because it doesn't do justice to the source material?

That's the way many Apple followers may feel watching the new film about the company's co-founder.

"Steve Jobs," which premiered Friday night in San Francisco, was followed by a Q&A with screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, who also wrote "The Social Network" about Facebook, and director Danny Boyle, who also directed "Slumdog Millionaire." The two repeated what they've been saying in interviews for a while now: They never intended to do a straight up biopic of Apple's brilliant co-founder from "cradle to grave." Instead, they were going for an "="" of="" jobs="" rather="" than="" a="" "photo.""="" shortcode="link" asset-type="article" uuid="439f3187-056e-4d5d-a278-136f7afbc595" slug="steve-jobs-film-is-a-painting-not-a-photograph-moviemakers-say" link-text="Impressionistic " section="news" title="'Steve Jobs' film is a 'painting, not a photograph,' moviemakers say" edition="us" data-key="link_bulk_key" api="{"id":"439f3187-056e-4d5d-a278-136f7afbc595","slug":"steve-jobs-film-is-a-painting-not-a-photograph-moviemakers-say","contentType":null,"edition":"us","topic":{"slug":"mobile"},"metaData":{"typeTitle":null,"hubTopicPathString":"Tech^Mobile","reviewType":null},"section":"news"}">

They achieved their aim.

In "Steve Jobs," screenwriter Aaron Sorkin said he made Jobs' troubled relationship with his eldest daughter Lisa the "emotional center" of the film. Universal Pictures

This isn't a documentary. Filmmakers often sacrifice historic accuracy for the sake of story, and "Steve Jobs" is no exception. Sorkin and Doyle created conversations, situations and narratives that didn't actually happen. Sorkin, faced with questions from a technorati audience in Silicon Valley -- including people who knew Jobs -- defended his artistic choices, saying journalists who followed the company "have an obligation to be objective. I have an obligation to be subjective."

And so the story Sorkin and Boyle tell is one about an impatient, uncompromising man who was unflinching when it came to using and dismissing people as he went about trying to change the world. What's missing is the story about why he felt he was the one to change it and how he went about doing it.

The filmmakers deserve credit for an inventive storytelling approach that takes you behind-the-scenes as Jobs, known for creating a cult of secrecy at Apple, prepares to introduce three important products to the world. You don't actually need to watch him launch the Mac, NeXT workstation or iMac computer. Those events can be found on YouTube. Instead, the movie makers present a kind of revisionist history to what was happening backstage.

Consider this exchange between Jobs, played ably by Michael Fassbender, and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak.

"What do you do?" asks Woz, portrayed by Seth Rogen, under a lot of hair. "You're not an engineer. You're not a designer. You can't put a hammer to a nail. I built the circuit board. The graphical interface was stolen. So how come, 10 times in a day, I read Steve Jobs is a genius. What do you do?"

Jobs' response: "Musicians play their instruments. I play the orchestra."

Or the scene right before the Mac is introduced in 1984. In one of the funniest moments in the movie, Jobs threatens Mac software engineer Andy Hertzfeld to get the Mac's voice demo ("Hello, I'm Macintosh") working a few minutes before they're set to unveil it.

"Fix it? We're not a pit crew at Daytona," sputters Hertzfeld, played by a likable Michael Stuhlbarg. "It can't be fixed in seconds."

"You didn't have seconds. You had three weeks," Jobs snaps back. "The universe was created in a third of that time."

"Well, some day you'll have to tell us how you did it," Hertzfeld cheekily replies.

A nice zinger. But like I said, these and other "Sorkinisms" were made up. Sorkin says he used Walter Isaacson's 2011 authorized biography of Jobs as his "inspiration" and said he spoke to all of the people portrayed in the film, except of course with Jobs, who died in 2011 at the age of 56.

The real Hertzfeld said last week the film is "a fine movie, brilliantly written and performed and full of humor and feeling," but it's not, you know, actually true to life.

"It deviates from reality everywhere -- almost nothing in it is like it really happened," Hertzfeld told Recode. "But ultimately that doesn't matter that much. The purpose of the film is to entertain, inspire and move the audience, not to portray reality. It is cavalier about the facts but aspires to explore and expose the deeper truths behind Steve's unusual personality and behavior, and it often but not always succeeds at that."

And so, if you know the source material, like some of us in the tech press do, the scenes where the film "not always succeeds" stand out. Maybe it's because we've spent our careers trying to uncover the truth. Maybe we're just too familiar with real history to tolerate the revisionist variety. Or maybe because the relationships Sorkin focused on don't seem to be the most compelling threads to the Jobs narrative. They include Jobs' tortured relationship with his oldest daughter, Lisa Brennan Jobs, whose paternity the famous technologist once disputed, and his falling out with former Apple CEO John Sculley.

Inside 'Steve Jobs,' the movie (pictures)

See all photos

Whatever the reason, the movie's creative license may make your eyes roll. A former Apple employee sitting behind me in the theater couldn't hold back a "Lord, this is ridiculous" at the invented conversations between Jobs and Sculley, the former PepsiCo CEO who Jobs recruited as Apple's CEO. Sculley helped engineer Jobs' ouster two years later. The filmmakers show Sculley (played by Jeff Daniels) at post-Apple product launches, trying to make peace. The two even shake hands.

In reality, Jobs was pretty vocal about Sculley's detrimental impact on Apple. In a long and candid interview for the Smithsonian Institution's oral history project, Jobs said:

"John Sculley ruined Apple and he ruined it by bringing a set of values to the top of Apple which were corrupt and corrupted some of the top people who were there, drove out some of the ones who were not corruptible, and brought in more corrupt ones and paid themselves collectively tens of millions of dollars and cared more about their own glory and wealth than they did about what built Apple in the first place -- which was making great computers for people to use."

Ouch. The two reportedly never met after that, so a scene where they shake hands seems quite a stretch. Sculley last week praised the acting, direction and screenplay, but agreed that the image of Jobs is out-of-focus. "I also think Steve Jobs would be a little bit hurt because many people who never knew the young Steve Jobs could go away from this movie and think, 'well I know Steve Jobs,'" Sculley told CNN. "Well guess what? You don't. Because that is not the complete Steve Jobs."

The filmmakers' artistic choices explain why Apple CEO Tim Cook, Apple design chief Jony Ive and Jobs' widow, Laurene Powell Jobs, aren't happy with how "Steve Jobs," the movie, portrays Steve Jobs, the man. Ive, speaking last week at a Vanity Fair conference in San Francisco, said he was upset that Jobs' legacy has been " hijacked...I don't recognize this person at all."

Sorkin said he wanted to focus not on "the products, but on the people." That's why he didn't include a scene before the unveiling of the iPhone, one of Apple's -- and Jobs -- most successful products.

And it's why he decided to make Jobs' complicated relationship with Lisa the "emotional core" of the film. But again, it's that thread that leads to the eye-rolling ending to the film (no spoiler alert here.)

Jobs, as a flawed, complicated, selfish and tortured personality, is well drawn. But the picture of Jobs, the man who drove his teams to do the seemingly impossible and bring us life-changing products we didn't even know we wanted, is only hinted at in this blurry portrait. Those wanting a more complete picture should read Isaacson's biography, along with Jeffrey S. Young's ""="">"The Journey is the Reward," Michael Moritz's ""="">"Little Kingdom" and Hertzfeld's "Revolution in the Valley."

Sorkin told the audience on Friday that Jobs would have liked the film, if it "were about someone else." Maybe, but I wouldn't bet on it.

"Steve Jobs" is in US theaters on October 23 and UK cinemas on November 13. It's scheduled to be released in Australia on 14 January 2016.