Commentary

If You Can't Handle The Truth: The Third Steve Jobs Movie

Aaron Sorkin, the man responsible for the line “You can’t handle the truth!” in “A Few Good Men,” seems to live by that philosophy in his screenplay for “Steve Jobs” (which opens nationwide on Oct. 23). Though the film is based loosely on the Jobs-approved Walter Isaacson biography of the same name, Sorkin took substantial liberties in compressing the giant bestseller into a tidy narrative in three acts.   

Each scene occurs during the (fictional) backstage action preceding a product launch. (The Macintosh in 1984, NeXT in 1988 and iMac in 1998.)  It’s like watching the high stakes, possibly-world-ending anxiety of the Cuban Missile Crisis crossed with a hackneyed episode of “This is your life, Steve Jobs!”  

Each unexpected visitor is brought into Jobs’ back of-the-house lair, to walk and talk and hurl resentments and problems at El Jefe a few vital moments before showtime. (Or as Vito Corleone said in “The Godfather”: “Why didn’t you come see me sooner?”)

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By now, most people have seen actual clips of the real Jobs on stage, enrapturing the Apple faithful. By contrast, this film offers the Sorkinized reverse view of  the launches: a look into the back of the machine.

And that’s pretty difficult, since Steve’s machines were famously “closed system, end-to-end.”

Turns out, so was the Apple co-founder himself.

During his life, Jobs’ behavior was erratic, confounding, contradictory, complicated, and essentially unknowable. But lest he rest in peace, he has been the subject of no fewer than three major movie releases since 2013.  

“Jobs,” the 2013 production, starred Ashton Kutcher, who actually resembles the Apple leader profoundly, unlike “Steve Jobs” star Michael Fassbender, who in Act One looks like a young Calvin Klein and in Act Two favors young Sting.

Still, the fact that Kutcher could easily pass for Jobs didn’t save his movie from being a Patchouli-scented bomb — mostly about the barefoot, smelly, fruitarian Steve, dropping acid in wheat fields in the late ‘70s, and then birthing Apple in a garage.

The second film, out now in theaters and streaming on demand, is a documentary by Alex Gibney called “Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine.” It shows him as brutal corporate cult leader, always displaying his messianic penchant for winning at any cost, and thinking the rules do not apply to him. One little example: his seemingly unreasonable need to purchase a new silver Mercedes every six months in order to avoid having to install a license plate. And then he would race the plate-less car into a handicapped parking spot in the Apple lot.

It’s a poignant and perhaps symbolic detail: Maybe, down deep, Jobs felt handicapped.

The “Steve Jobs” film actually points to his adoption story as the root of all of his complicated evil. It has John Sculley — whom Jobs famously hired away from Pepsi to bring some grownup corporate leadership to the Cupertino campus (and who awkwardly remained there as CEO once Jobs was fired) -- asking him “Why do people who were adopted end up feeling rejected instead of selected?”

The line might be pure fiction, but the film does show that trying to be Jobs' father figure was a treacherous and impossible role. What struck me is that though Jobs was adopted by a kind, hard-working couple and raised in the suburban farmland of the then-Silicon Valley, which gave him huge advantages, he seemed to be consumed by his anger about being “thrown away.”  

Of course a similar baby left in a cradle in the bull rushes is the stuff of the li’l Moses’ story, and much great fiction. Superman has the same tale: shipped off by his parents to a new planet, the Midwest, and adopted by a kind couple  (but always having to hide his powers, which gave him a split personality). Tom Sawyer, Harry Potter, Luke Skywalker, son of Darth Vader, all have similar father-seeking narratives. So does equally hard-charging real person and Oracle founder Larry Ellison, who as a baby was given to an aunt and uncle by his young mother.

One of the most unknowable parts of his story is how Jobs, himself so injured as an adoptee, could cruelly refuse to acknowledge paternity of his own firstborn child, a daughter named Lisa.

They later reconcile, but his sometimes abusive, on and off again relationship with her gets an almost unseemly amount of screen time; it’s the ugly counterpoint to his obsessive dedication to, and nurturance of, his real baby, Apple. (Laurene Powell Jobs, his wife since 1991, and their three children, are never mentioned — a hole in the space-time continuum.)

Still, when not terrorizing kids and employees, Jobs was an insanely talented marketer. (That’s what the whole show is about, after all.)

“Steve Jobs” makes clear that Chiat/Day really knocked it out of the park in translating Jobs' no-doubt impossible advertising demands. The movie goes into the behind-the-scenes mayhem of getting “1984” to air on the Super Bowl, since the old-school Apple board hated it and, on the Friday before the Big Game, had instructed the agency to sell off the time.

Then there's the greatness of “Think Different,” the grammatically challenged campaign created as a placeholder once Jobs returned to Apple in 1997. I remember thinking at the time that it was pretty damn grandiose for someone running a personal computer business to compare himself with the likes of Gandhi, Thomas Edison, John Lennon, and Muhammad Ali. But the company was at a low point, with no product to sell, and would not have anything until the iMac rolled out in 1998.

So the agency put out that beautifully produced array of geniuses on parade (Einstein, Picasso, Lucy) as placeholders to show the unstoppable Apple dedication to great art and perfection. The ad — painted on the sides of buildings, on billboards and appearing on the back covers of magazines — had a knockout scale and Chairman Mao-poster-like frontality. It was among the smartest, most visually stimulating print work ever produced in advertising.

“Here’s to the Crazy Ones,” Richard Dreyfuss said on the TV version, talking about  “the square pegs in the round hole…the people who move us forward.” It was one of the first commercials ever to win an Emmy. That made sense: the concept of the spot was so self-congratulatory that it embodied the spirit of award shows.

And then Steve launched the iMac, which delivered on all the promise of the Macintosh, and had a delicious candy-colored transparent back.

The end of the movie, in a period of glasnost with his daughter (after he refused to pay her Harvard tuition) shows Steve predicting to Lisa that she’ll soon be able to carry thousands of songs in her pocket (signaling the coming of the iPod and iPhone.) She asks him why he lied when he claimed the Lisa computer was not named after her. He tells her he is “poorly made.”  

It’s not the greatest story ever told. But that’s okay — no doubt there will be another one.

7 comments about "If You Can't Handle The Truth: The Third Steve Jobs Movie".
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  1. Ruth Ayres from Harte-Hanks, October 16, 2015 at 2:24 p.m.

    Great commentary as usual Barbara.  I think the best bio film about Jobs is yet to come. And probably ought not be made for another 20 years at least.  I'm thinking about Speilberg's monumental "Lincoln" which balanced managed to show Lincoln as both mythic and real.  That movie could not have been made sooner--previous films simplified and deified (think Raymond Massey's Lincoln).  In today's collapsed time frame of cultural shift, it seems we can't go from deification to artistic realism and balance without a middle step--demonization.  So it fell to Mr. Sorkin to create the demon version.  I'd love to be alive when the next Spielberg creates a film for the ages about Steve Jobs and the moment in time when the world changed forever.

  2. Jim English from The Met Museum, October 16, 2015 at 10:37 p.m.

    Thanks Barbara. You weren't so crazy about "Think Different." You wrote in 1998 that the Emmy awarded to TBWA Chiat/Day for the campaign was "a disengenuous way to honor the unspoken ones: Applemeister Steve Jobs and ad guru Lee Clow."  Looking forward to seeing the movie.  Wondering if characters of Lee Clow or even Jay Chiat are cast.

  3. Barbara Lippert from mediapost.com, October 16, 2015 at 11:31 p.m.

    THanks, Jim. I think I was too hard on it then. Lee Clow is mentioned in the movie by Jobs, as is Chiat Day, but Jay isn't. I saw an interview with Sorkin where they transcribed the name as "Lee Cloud."

  4. Neilan Tyree from The Propeller Group, October 17, 2015 at 8:57 a.m.

    Once again, another terrific column that brings a LOT of perspective into such a short format -- and some pretty awesome phraseology in the process.

    My favorite bits of hilarity are from your skewering of the Ashton Kutcher version:  1) “Patchouli-scented bomb;” and 2) “barefoot, smelly, fruitarian Steve, dropping acid in wheat fields in the late ‘70s, and then birthing Apple in a garage…”  Hahahahaha…

    But my actual takeaway is that I now want to see all THREE films in rapid succession so plan to do just THAT when the latest film hits my neighborhood theater next weekend.

    I also, however, agree with Ruth Ayres that it's going to take a lot of time and distant to ever actually tell the story. Mainly because we have no idea how history will recall this time we're still experiencing. Will this be considered a magical moment? Or a horrifying one.

    I don't have time to debate that right now. Must go recheck my business email for the second time early on a Saturday morning...

  5. Barbara Lippert from mediapost.com, October 17, 2015 at 9:57 a.m.

    True, Neilan. and the biggest irony, perhaps, is that while Silicon Valley is filled with 2 percenters, having destroyed, er, disrupted most major industries, the rest of us are serfs (as in the audience in 1984) staring at our blue screens. 

  6. Don Perman from self, October 17, 2015 at 12:15 p.m.

    Another smart, witty column! A great summary of the 3 Jobs films, and I know I never have to see the Kutcher one, though it was in the cards before.  This one had an odd form, indeed, but left me with lots of impressions.  All enhanced by this column.  Thanks.  

  7. Alan Wasserstrom from None, October 19, 2015 at 1:53 p.m.

    Nice Job. nuff said.

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