Opening today, Aaron Sorkin’s movie ‘Steve Jobs’ focuses on the friction amid the triumphs in the late genius’ career.
The biopic Steve Jobs opens Friday, telling the story of the iconic, charismatic Apple maestro by focusing on three crucial moments in his career: the product launch of the Macintosh in 1984, the failed unveiling of his startup Apple rival NeXT in 1988, and the triumphant comeback of Apple in 1998 with the debut of the iMac.
The movie takes inspiration from Walter Isaacson’s acclaimed, authorized 2011 biography, also titled Steve Jobs, but screenwriter Aaron Sorkin has made it clear that he wasn’t interested in making a straightforward portrait of Jobs. “I knew what I didn’t want to write, and that was a biopic with the traditional cradle-to-grave structure where you land on all the greatest hits,” Sorkin said earlier this month. “I wondered if I could take all of the work that Walter had done and dramatize the points of friction in Steve’s life with just three real-time scenes.”
With that caveat in mind, what are the most important elements of Jobs’ life and work that the movie wants to drive home? And how accurate are they to the real Steve Jobs?
1. The brilliant 1984 Super Bowl ad for Macintosh wasn’t beloved inside Apple.
It’s one of the most iconic commercials of all time: the Ridley Scott-directed “1984” ad in which a lone rebel shatters the conformity of an Orwellian future society, while heralding the launch of Apple’s Macintosh computer.
Airing during Super Bowl XVIII on January 22, 1984, the spot was visually arresting and dramatically gripping, just what Jobs wanted. But as the movie shows, not everyone at the company agreed with his rosy assessment, trying to cancel it before the game.
Then-Apple CEO John Sculley would later recount the 1983 meeting in which the company’s board of directors first saw the ad. “[They had] dazed expressions on their faces,” Sculley remembered, adding, “Most of them felt it was the worst commercial they had ever seen.”
But others had faith in the commercial. Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak told Jobs’ biographer Walter Isaacson, “I was astounded. I thought it was the most incredible thing.”
And as Steve Jobs notes, many of the shaved-head drones in “1984” were actual skinheads hired in London to play extras, although it’s unclear whether Sculley was as upset about this fact as he’s portrayed to be in the movie. (Jeff Daniels plays Sculley in the film.) The estimated cost to produce the spot was between $500,000 and $750,000, with an additional $1 million to buy the Super Bowl airtime. But in recent years, Sculley (who had always like the ad) stated, “We figured we got about $45 million of free public relations from that commercial.”
2. The unveiling of the Macintosh was almost jeopardized because no one could get the computer to talk.
As Steve Jobs tells it, the January 24, 1984 debut of Macintosh very nearly could have been a disaster—all because programmer Andy Hertzfeld (played by Michael Stuhlbarg) couldn’t get the computer to “speak” during rehearsals.
The movie paints this scenario as a beat-the-clock dilemma, with Jobs threatening to publicly humiliate Hertzfeld if the Macintosh fails to say “Hello” at the live presentation. The filmmakers appear to be taking a little creative license, although there were anxieties in the buildup to the unveiling.
As Hertzfeld recalled in his book Revolution in the Valley: The Insanely Great Story of How the Mac Was Made, “It took a monumental effort, fueled by inordinate amounts of chocolate-covered espresso beans, to finally finish the first release of the Macintosh software in time for the introduction.” And even when that was all finished, Jobs decided at the last minute that they needed a live demo for the presentation, which required Hertzfeld and his team to develop a music player and an animation quickly. Although the rehearsals had been riddled with technical errors and Jobs’ nitpicking, the presentation went off without a hitch, those in attendance applauding for five minutes after it was over.
3. Bob Dylan was a major influence.
The pioneering singer-songwriter is referenced several times during Steve Jobs, whether it’s his lyrics being quoted in Jobs’ 1984 introduction of the Macintosh or his face being featured in Apple’s 1998 “Think Different” campaign. (Plus, it’s Dylan’s “Shelter From the Storm” that plays over the film’s end credits.)
According to Isaacson, it was Wozniak who turned Jobs onto the musician when they first started becoming friends in the late 1960s, both of them becoming obsessive Dylan bootleg collectors. “We’d buy brochures of Dylan lyrics and stay up late interpreting them,” Wozniak once said. “Dylan’s words struck chords of creative thinking.”
Jobs would finally meet the legend in October 2004 when Dylan played a show in Northern California. “We sat on the patio outside his room and talked for two hours,” Jobs told Isaacson. “I was really nervous, because he was one of my heroes. And I was also afraid that he wouldn’t be really smart anymore, that he’d be a caricature of himself, like happens to a lot of people. But I was delighted. He was as sharp as a tack. He was everything I’d hoped.”
4. He wrestled all his life with his relationship to his daughter Lisa.
A major plot point in each of the film’s three segments is Jobs’ uneasiness around Lisa, whom he refuses to admit is his daughter—much to the consternation of her mother Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston).
Brennan gave birth to Lisa in May of 1978. “Steve and I were in and out of a relationship for five years before I got pregnant,” she told Isaacson. “We didn’t know how to be together and we didn’t know how to be apart.”
Steve Jobs references an interview he gave to Time around the Macintosh launch in which he speculated that, because of the impreciseness of paternity tests, “Twenty-eight percent of the male population in the United States could be the father.” The callous comments hurt Brennan in the movie, and it hurt her in real life as well: “He was trying to paint me as a slut or a whore,” she told Isaacson.
The film concludes on an ambiguous (but hopeful) note that perhaps reconciliation can happen between Jobs and his daughter, but in real life such a clear-cut happy ending was harder to obtain. As Isaacson wrote, “After a falling-out, they could go for months not speaking to each other. Neither one was good at reaching out, apologizing, or making the effort to heal, even when he was wrestling with repeated health problems.” In the fall of 2010, about 12 months before he died, Jobs admitted to his biographer that he hadn’t spoken to Lisa that year.
5. Joanna Hoffman was his indispensible right-hand woman.
Kate Winslet plays Jobs’ marketing guru, and the sole woman on the original Mac team. In the film, she’s constantly by his side, essentially serving as a chief of staff and sounding board, never concerned about standing up to him or calling him out on his combative behavior.
The real Hoffman is no less strong-willed, with a background in anthropology and physics before joining up with Jobs in 1980. (And, according to Hertzfeld, she was also a great game player, helping to test out Apple’s early game Alice, based on Alice in Wonderland.)
Speaking to Isaacson about Jobs, Hoffman assessed her former boss this way: “He had the uncanny capacity to know exactly what your weak point is, know what will make you feel small, to make you cringe. It’s a common trait in people who are charismatic and know how to manipulate people.”
Consequently, as Steve Jobs mentions, the company started giving out a tongue-in-cheek award each year to the employee who most stood his or her ground around Jobs. For the first two years, Hoffman won. “I remember being envious of Joanna, because she would stand up to Steve and I didn’t have the nerve yet,” fellow Apple employee Debi Coleman later said. (The following year, Coleman won.)
6. He never got over the fact that he was adopted.
Because this piece of Jobs’ backstory is so well-known, most going to the movie probably won’t be surprised to learn that the Apple leader was adopted. In Steve Jobs, though, this fact haunts him, which fascinates Sculley, who wonders why Jobs would look at being adopted as being rejected, as opposed to being chosen.
In truth, Jobs was adopted twice—the original family his biological mother Joanne Schieble had selected decided to adopt a girl instead—and those around him said the revelation had a profound effect on him. “Many adopted kids believe that they deserve only to have their basic needs met,” Chrisann Brennan wrote in her memoir The Bite in the Apple. “I often felt that this was true of Steve and that, ironically, it had flipped in him and morphed into his enlarged sense of entitlement.”
The movie suggests that Jobs met his biological father, Abdulfattah Jandali, by accident one day when he went into a restaurant that just so happened to be run by Jandali. That’s accurate—and in real life, Jobs declined to reconnect with the man once he learned the truth. “I was a wealthy man by then,” Jobs told his biographer, “and I didn’t trust him not to try to blackmail me or go to the press about it.”
For Jandali, who was raised in Syria, he too was hesitant to reach out to his son, even when Jobs’ failing health prompted him to step down as Apple CEO. “This might sound strange, though, but I am not prepared, even if either of us was on our deathbeds, to pick up the phone to call him,” Jandali once said. “Steve will have to do that, as the Syrian pride in me does not want him ever to think I am after his fortune.”
7. The iPod was already on his mind in the late 1990s.
Steve Jobs ends in 1998 as Jobs is about to unveil iMac, but he tells Lisa, almost in passing, that his next idea will be to create a device to store music in your pocket that will replace the Walkman.
The first iPods saw the light of day in 2001, and it appears that the idea for the device didn’t really get rolling until around 2000 when Jobs launched iTunes. The iTunes Store would open three years later, giving record labels an opportunity to distribute their music online and get paid, which had been an industry concern ever since the upstart file-sharing system Napster arrived in the late 1990s.
Although the iPod is cheekily referenced in Steve Jobs, the product did prove to be one of the man’s most crucial technological innovations of the 21st century, inspiring imitators (like Microsoft’s Zune) that quickly faded into oblivion. “The older I get, the more I see how much motivations matter,” Jobs would later comment. “The Zune was crappy because the people at Microsoft don’t really love music or art the way we do. We won because we personally love music.”
8. Colleagues really did refer to his “reality distortion field.”
The movie paints Jobs as a master of spin, but only near the end of Steve Jobs does anyone, Joanna Hoffman, reference the “reality distortion field,” which was the infamous phrase his coworkers used to describe his willful ability to create his own narratives to win people over to his side.
The phrase was originated by Mac team member Bud Tribble, who based it off a Star Trek episode, “The Menagerie,” which featured an alien civilization that constructed their own reality. “It was dangerous to get caught in Steve’s distortion field,” Tribble later told Isaacson, “but it was what led him to actually be able to change reality.”
“The reality distortion field was a confounding mélange of a charismatic rhetorical style, an indomitable will, and an eagerness to bend any fact to fit the purpose at hand,” Hertzfeld wrote in Revolution in the Valley. “If one line of argument failed to persuade, he would deftly switch to another. Sometimes, he would throw you off balance by suddenly adapting your position as his own, without acknowledging that he ever thought differently.”
But Jobs’ methods worked, helping him to execute a vision that others didn’t always see. As Isaacson pointed out, when Jobs was asked by a reporter what market research he did before launching the Mac, Jobs responded, “Did Alexander Graham Bell do any market research before he invented the telephone?”