Steve Jobs: Jerk or genius?
As it did for so many of those who worked in Silicon Valley during the 1980s and '90s, the specter of Steve Jobs loomed large over nearly the entirety of James Currier’s career as an entrepreneur and venture capitalist.
“In 1998, I had a 196-page Word doc with quotes from him,” says Currier, who a year later founded one of the world’s earliest social networks, Tickle. [Disclosue: Currier is a Pando investor.] Later, while working as a mentor and advisor for young Valley workers, Currier would console a number of Jobs’ employees over the years after reading “long sad emails” about the challenges of working with the famously difficult CEO.
Difficult, when it comes to Steve Jobs, might be the understatement of the century.
Reports of his short temper and bad manners are legion, from the time he told a group of contractors they were “fucking dickless assholes” to more calamitous offenses, like the years he spent denying paternity of his daughter Lisa, collecting his riches while she and her mother lived on welfare.
This is the man we see for much of writer Aaron Sorkin’s and director Danny Boyle’s new film, Steve Jobs. The film is a breezy and entertaining docudrama that, by telling the life of Jobs through only three extended scenes and just a handful of characters, is a innovative reinvention of the traditional “cradle-to-the-grave” biopic. Steve Jobs currently holds an 89 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes and has attracted Oscar buzz for Sorkin, Boyle, and Michael Fassbender, who plays Jobs.
But not everyone is thrilled about Steve Jobs. The film has unsurprisingly raised the ire of Jobs’ widow, Laurene Powell Jobs, and current Apple CEO Tim Cook, who called the film “opportunistic.”
At a Q&A following the New York premier of the film earlier this week, Sorkin was quick to remind the audience, “They have not seen the movie.”
But that doesn’t necessarily mean Cook is wrong. Most of the film does portray Jobs as a massive jerk, albeit one who lands a bit of conveniently-timed redemption minutes before the film ends.
But are Sorkin and Boyle unfair? Or - Cook and Powell Jobs notwithstanding - is the film aligned with how Jobs’ contemporaries inside the tech world viewed him?
I posed these questions to Currier, who worked in the Valley at the same time, but was not so close to Jobs that he would defend him unthinkingly. Judging by his impression of Jobs, along with that of the broader Silicon Valley industry during the 90s and 00s, the film’s portrayal is fairly spot-on.
“I feel like [Jobs’] formula for success was the ability make everyone be in fear of him, but make them love him at the same time,” Currier said. “He had some kind of unique quality to make people strive in fear of him, but want to be near him and never want to quit.”
Sorkin’s film grapples with what that “unique quality” might be – is it the same rock star gene that, to paraphrase the film, made people worship John Lennon more than Ringo? The film leaves this question open. But at the premiere Q&A, Boyle suggested that Jobs got more credit simply by virtue of being a jerk.
“I think Seth [Rogen] found an extra affinity with Woz [Apple’s early collaborator Steve Wozniak, whom Rogen portrays],” Boyle said, “because I think on some level he thinks…because he’s a nice guy, and he is a nice guy, that you don’t get the credit for it. And there is that in Woz, because he was the affable one he didn’t get the credit for it. And Seth kind of bonded with him in that way… it’s the furtherance of that argument you can be decent and gifted. You tend to underestimate people because they aren’t the tortured difficult one.”
This idea drives nearly all of the character conflicts throughout the film. Rogen’s Wozniak, for example, rips into Jobs late in the third act:
“What do you do?” Wozniak asks. “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, ten times in a day, I read, 'Steve Jobs is a genius'? What do you do?”
Elsewhere, John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), the man Jobs chose as CEO early in the company’s history, attacks the protagonist for leveraging his hero status to convince the press that Sculley had heartlessly forced Jobs out of the company. In truth, Sculley had simply defended himself against Jobs’ own attempts to wrest away control of Apple.
But Currier has a simpler, less mystical take on the magnetism of Jobs versus these partners-turned-competitors: Nobody else got results like Jobs, and so everyone wanted a piece of the success that followed him through much of his career.
“My sense is that people treated him better because he was the one, they perceived, who could give them more in the future,” Currier says. “I, as a journalist, am going to get more stories from Steve Jobs than Steve Wozniak and John Sculley. And everyone’s like that: the public markets, the Wall Street analysts. Whoever’s going to feed you more.”
In other words, the worship directed toward Steve Jobs is less religious and more transactional than it is portrayed in the film. And in that same vein, where the film suffers most is in its final minutes, when the filmmakers succumb to the mythologizing they sought to dismantle in the previous two-and-a-half acts. From “The West Wing” to “The Newsroom,” Sorkin exhibits a kind of blind faith in the inherent goodness of Great Men. By the closing minutes, the film asks the audience to accept that Jobs has undergone a startling transformation: from a wicked, icy-hearted genius into a loving family man who will gladly postpone the start of the biggest product launch of his career to spend a few extra minutes with his daughter. As for his past offenses, Sorkin’s script offers up a rushed backstory about Jobs’ own abandonment childhood that helps explain – though hardly justifies - his cruelty to his daughter and her mother.
Even though this transformation rings false, that’s mostly due to the film’s unique three-act construction, which turns out to be both its greatest strength and its Achilles Heel. In real-life, Jobs did eventually reconcile with his daughter. And while most of the dialogue was invented out of thin air, the film as a whole is a much more faithful retelling of true events than, say, Sorkin’s last tech biopic, The Social Network. In that film, Sorkin painted Mark Zuckerberg as Steve Jobs, Jr. – a depiction Currier dismisses.
“People aren’t scared of Zuckerberg,” he says. “They just like him a lot.”
While Cook and Laurene Jobs are understandably miffed that a film opening to nationwide audiences and in the hunt for every Oscar that matters paints their friend and companion as a bit of a monster, this portrayal is not inaccurate. And as a so-called “hit job,” the film could have been much harder on Jobs – controversies that go unmentioned in the film include the firm’s massive wage-fixing scandal reported by Pando’s Mark Ames and the shoddy conditions of the company’s factories in China.
Late in the film, Jobs is shocked to hear one of his oldest colleagues, Andy Hertzfeld, berate him for his callous behavior toward his daughter. “I don’t like you,” Hertzfeld says, to which Jobs responds that this is disappointing to hear: “I always liked you.”
That’s why I didn’t find it entirely ludicrous when Sorkin suggested near the end of the Q&A that Jobs would have “appreciated” the movie. Because despite the anger directed at the filmmakers by those closest to Jobs, I can almost imagine Jobs, after watching his soul dragging through the dirt for the better part of two hours, saying the same thing about Sorkin.