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The Life of Jobs Would Make for Great Opera

I’ve read a few reviews of the new Jobs movie this week, and I have to say now that I’ve seen it, I agree with most of the points made. But I think there’s a bigger problem here that goes beyond the shortcomings of this particular film. I think the whole endeavor of making a two-hour popular movie about Jobs’ life is folly. At least for the time being.

Jobs, directed by Joshua Michael Stern and starring Ashton Kutcher in the title role, isn’t a terrible film. Parts are certainly entertaining, and it must be said that Kutcher does a remarkable “impression” of the man, if not a great portrayal, as wisely pointed out by Philip Michaels. (He even looks like Jobs, though the bearded scenes are more convincing than the clean-shaven.) But the film attempts to paint the life of Steve Jobs in three acts. The early life and founding of Apple, the Macintosh and getting ousted by the board, and finally the triumphant return. And the problem is that Jobs’ actual life story is more of a classical 5-act drama, like a Shakespeare play.

Act I: Early years, including Reed College, LSD, Phone Phreaking, the Palo Alto garage, and the Apple I. Ends with the runaway success of the Apple II and the IPO, which transforms Apple into a much larger company that is spinning out of control.

Act II: Apple becomes a “real” company, with all the management and structure issues that go along with it. Jobs is revealed to have brilliant vision but no political skills and poor personal judgment. Includes the Lisa, the Mac, the hiring of Sculley, and the ousting of Steve by the board. Steve’s arrogance and tendency to trust the wrong people leads to his betrayal and fall.

Act III: The NeXT / Pixar years. Includes an initial period of Jobs not knowing what he wants to do. Then the remarkable story of NeXT, which is essentially a repeat of his failure at Apple (brilliant at product and vision, terrible at keeping a company going). Steve initially continues to believe he had done everything right and the “bozos” had killed everything great about Apple. But this repeat failure at NeXT proves to Steve that it wasn’t just a matter of betrayal that led to the Apple failure. It forces Jobs to look at himself and actually learn something. Pixar is essential here as well, as it’s where Steve learns a great deal about how to work with artists and how to negotiate with media bosses, which is a key component of his later success. Pixar also struggles for several years before taking off with Toy Story. And that almost didn’t happen. Plus, during this time period, Jobs meets Laurene, starts a family, and reconciles with his first daughter. This is the climax of Jobs’ life, and probably the most interesting part of his story, as far as drama goes.

Act IV: The return to Apple, including the selling of NeXT, ousting Amelio, the simplification of the company, and the turnaround to profitability. Key products, iMac, iPod, and the iTunes Music Store. And the beginnings of the Retail strategy, which is another incredible key to understanding Jobs. This is where characters like Jony Ive and Tim Cook start to shine as examples of people Jobs puts into place who are not only A players, but also loyal to his vision. Perfect foils to Sculley and Markkula. With them, he begins to structure the company into something much more powerful than a typical corporation. Jobs uses this part of Steve’s life as an ending, but it’s really just the build up to the real triumph. This is where Steve starts to test his theory that a functional organization with passion for great products can succeed with the right people and structure. But he’s still a long way from proving his vision is correct in the long term. The Mac is still a niche product, and the iPod is a fraction of what happens later with the iPhone.

Act V: The Jobs vision becomes fully triumphant. Having learned to combine his passion and vision with strong management, Jobs leads Apple into becoming one of the most powerful companies in the world. Not only does Apple crush all other computer companies, it also becomes a legitimate pop culture phenomenon. Key events, iPhone, iPad, App Store. We get to see Eric Schmidt betray Jobs with Android, which is a nice call back to the earlier issues he had with Sculley and with Bill Gates during his first tenure at Apple. And that leads to an ill-advised obsession with “killing” Google, which shows that Jobs never got over those early betrayals, and thus remains flawed, like any human. Also, unfortunately, this act would include Jobs’ battle with cancer and eventual death, which while tragic, makes for a perfect, bittersweet ending. Just at his moment of highest triumph, he is taken from us.

Taking a look at Jobs again, the movie spends a bit of time in Act I, the bulk of the time in Act II, inexplicably skips Act III, and ends by giving Act IV short shrift and skipping Act V entirely. It covers the same period of Jobs’ life as the decades-earlier Pirates of Silicon Valley, albeit with more production value, but without nearly as much fun.

Why is Jobs so heavy on the early years and so weak on the later life? One major reason for this is probably the lack of good source material for Acts III, IV, and V. The Isaacson biography makes exactly the same mistake, and that’s the only officially endorsed source we have on the man. Isaacson spends so much time on the early history that he runs out of steam before he gets to the best part of the story. And thus we miss what’s truly important about Steve in both the book and this film. Any filmmaker wanting to tackle this problem is going to be limited by the information currently available, and there is precious little to go on at the moment.

Also conspicuously missing from the Isaacson biography and even more so from this film is any focus on the personal life of Jobs. If you’re making a movie about a person, not just a series of events, you need to have much more insight into his personal life. And that’s going to be very difficult to come by in the case of Steve Jobs.

So then, focusing on the earlier years may be an unfortunate limitation for the time being. Is that such a bad thing? Well, maybe.

It sounds crazy, but the Mac is practically a footnote in the history of Steve Jobs. It was merely one in a long series of examples of great visions carried out by Steve. If it were the only thing Steve had ever accomplished, it would be ten times more than the average person does. But Apple itself is so much more than any one of its products. It would be like making a movie about Walt Disney and only talking about Snow White. Sure, that might make a great story, but it would barely scratch the surface of understanding what Disney actually accomplished in his lifetime.

Could a movie just about the period of the Macintosh be really great? Sure. But that story has already been told, very well, in Andy Hertzfeld’s book Revolution in the Valley. If you want to make a film of that book, do just that, and forget about focusing on Jobs himself. The Mac was a team effort, and its creation is a great story about a group of people with very distinct personalities. I’d love to see that movie.

Also, as mentioned already, this same period was covered by Pirates of the Silicon Valley, which, to be honest, isn’t a terrible film, even if it was made for TV and has a certain cheesy quality to it. Pirates at least can be forgiven for treating Jobs’ life in three acts, as it was made before acts IV and V actually happened. And at least it was smart enough to make Bill Gates the villain. You can’t make a movie about Jobs and the Mac and not make Bill Gates a key character. Jobs barely mentions him.

So, then, can we make the perfect Jobs film, or at least a better Jobs film? Well, if we really do want to cover his whole life, we have a problem. A movie giving proper attention to all five acts would be ten to fifteen hours long, and even Peter Jackson and Oliver Stone aren’t that crazy. The way I see it, you’re better off forgetting the biography and just focusing on one key aspect of Jobs’ life. Not even one full act. Just make a story around a single product launch, like the buildup to the iMac, or the original iPod. Either one of those would make for an awesome movie on its own. I can’t imagine how much drama went on during the design phase of the iPod. The courting of the music industry. Those meetings were likely epic. Or really challenge yourself and tackle Act III, the middle period of Jobs’ life when he was between Apples. There’s tons of great story there. It would be tough to get firsthand source material for all of this, of course, but not impossible. Most of the key players are still alive, and if they’re still refusing to talk out of respect for Steve right now, they may eventually acquiesce and give you some interviews as they get older.

I really think we’ll have better Jobs books and movies thirty or forty years from now.

Otherwise, if you insist on covering the whole life of Jobs, forget doing a movie and call HBO. Because for that, you need a full miniseries, along the lines of HBO’s excellent John Adams. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if that ends up happening in a few decades, when we all have more perspective, and there’s been a lot more written about the later years of Jobs’ life.

Meanwhile, I suppose I’ll look forward to Aaron Sorkin’s Jobs movie and hope for the best. With any luck, Sorkin won’t make the same mistakes we’ve seen here.

Or how about a Steve Jobs Opera? Now there’s an art form that’s worthy of this epic tale.