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Commentary: I met Steve Jobs, and the movie gets its subject wrong

Michael Fassbender as Steve Jobs

Michael Fassbender as Steve Jobs

(Universal Pictures)

In 1984, a few months after he introduced the groundbreaking Macintosh computer, Steve Jobs met with me in a student cafeteria at the University of Texas. He wasn’t famous yet; if anybody recognized him, they didn’t show it.

We talked about his new machine. The conversation was pleasant enough until I told him I’d bought a Mac but had taken it back for a refund. It was cool, I said. But it was underpowered, I couldn’t connect it to a modem, I needed a computer for work, and the Mac wasn’t up to the job.

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His smile disappeared. His voice grew cold. By the time I told him I’d swapped his Mac for an ugly Compaq 8088, Jobs was speaking only in hostile monosyllables. The conversation was over.

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That’s OK. I now own an iPhone and a MacBook Air, both Steve Jobs creations, and I love them. He didn’t treat me well. So what?

Friday night, I attended the San Francisco preview of “Steve Jobs,” a slickly produced movie that director Danny Boyle and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin have made clear should be considered a work of fiction, although it’s based on Walter Isaacson’s well-researched biography.

Sorkin pulls some of Isaacson’s themes together and explores them with fabricated dialogue in three main scenes, each set backstage at a key product launch.

Getting all the facts right needn’t be a priority in a product manufactured by the entertainment industry. To elevate itself beyond a mere moneymaker and approach a work of art, though, such a film must capture the main character and the times he lived in, and make it all believable in spirit and in tone.

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I interviewed Jobs several times and I’ve covered the technology industry for decades. For me, “Steve Jobs” fails to capture the essence of Steve Jobs. It’s not even a very good movie.

Actor Michael Fassbender portrays Jobs with simple, one-note relentlessness. Aside from a few violin-heavy scenes with his young, out-of-wedlock daughter, the Steve Jobs in this movie is a nonstop jerk. Fassbender is a fine actor — and, from what my female colleagues tell me, a “babe.” But he can’t capture Jobs’ charisma.

For most of the movie, Fassbender’s Jobs looks like just another handsome white guy in a corporate suit. His carriage is all East Coast IBM executive. There’s none of the Reed College-attending, LSD-eating, guru-seeking past that gave Jobs his groovy California vibe. His passion in the film is all f-you willpower. There’s no positive energy in it.

There is one fleeting scene at the end of the movie, when Jobs is onstage to unveil the new iMac, where the camera captures, in profile, Jobs’ self-satisfied public smile, and does so with perfection. Such moments are rare.

Other actors were better chosen. Seth Rogen is brilliantly cast as Steve Wozniak, the cuddly-bear Apple cofounder who was consistently dissed by a patronizing Jobs. Jeff Daniels pulls off a believably patrician John Sculley, the Pepsi executive who was brought in as Apple chief executive and then fired Jobs. (Though Daniels’ XXL version of the angular Sculley seems to subsist on a diet of doughnuts and oatmeal stout.)

The dialog, for better and worse, is pure Sorkin. The script is a frenetic, nonstop, hyper-caffeinated wit-fest, where men speed-walk down hallways spouting theories and showing off their knowledge of history and culture while women follow close behind and breathlessly tell them they’re brilliant but wrong.

More than Jobs, Fassbender comes off like Josh Lyman in Sorkin’s TV hit “The West Wing.” Maybe Washington, D.C., is like this. Silicon Valley is not.

This movie packs in a lot of yelling, and the point is made over and over and over again: Steve Jobs didn’t treat people very well.

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What’s missing is the magic behind Apple, the creative process that produced such beautiful objects, the sources of Jobs’ fascination with computers and design, and more than a few token lines about his dreams and ultimate goals.

I don’t know whether audiences will like this movie or not. If they’re looking to learn more about what made Steve Jobs tick, they’ll get a very narrow view. They’ll learn next to nothing about Silicon Valley and how it works.

Isaacson’s book though? That’s really good.

MORE:

‘Steve Jobs’ gets as much attention for Aaron Sorkin as for Steve Jobs

Michael Fassbender talks ‘Steve Jobs,’ iPhones and working naked

And the critics say...Fassbender shines in ‘Steve Jobs,’ a compelling film about a complex man

 

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