The opening titles roll as archive footage plays, of science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke explaining how personal computers will be a part of our future.
It is now 1984 Cupertino, California. A 28-year-old Steve Jobs (Michael Fassbender), his right-hand woman Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), and one of the inventors of the Apple Macintosh, Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg), are all gathered around a projection screen trying to figure out why the Macintosh computer won’t say “hello.” It’s revealed they’re in a performing arts center, about to do a heavily anticipated product launch for Apple shareholders and press. Joanna suggests that he just leaves it out of the demo, which is minutes away. Steve refuses and insists that it must work. He tells Andy he must make it work. Andy tells him that they need special tools to get inside the machine’s hardware you can’t just use a screwdriver. Steve is furious but Joanna tells them not to talk loudly about the machine they’re introducing to the world being hard to open; she points out that Joel Pforzheimer from GQ Magazine is in the nearly empty audience already, having been shadowing Steve for three weeks. He says he doesn’t care. He mentions how he wants to sell a million units in three months. Steve then calls for Andy Andy Hertzfeld asks which one (since there is Andy Hertzfeld and a female, Andy Cunningham, who is in charge of the launch). Steve says that since Andy Hertzfeld is already on stage with him, he obviously wants the other Andy. She comes over and he tells her to make sure the Exit signs go off during the video presentation so there is total blackness. When she informs him that the fire department will not let them dim the lights for safety reasons, he tells her, “If a fire causes a stampede to the unmarked exits, it will have been well worth it for those who survive.” Joanna suggests pushing the demonstration back while they work on the voice feature but Steve says they will always start exactly on time (this will come back to play throughout the film).
Joanna and Steve go backstage. She tries to convince him to just leave the “hello” out of his demo, that no one will realize there is supposed to be a voice program, but he is insistent it happen because this machine’s success will dictate whether he is a success or a failure. He later admits that he needs it to say “hello” because Hollywood has turned the computer into a monster in their films. This computer is designed to look warm and friendly and inviting and he wants it to say hello. She acknowledges that HAL said “hello” and it scared her (i.e., the film he is referring to is “2001: A Space Odyssey”). Joanna complains about both the $2500 price point of the machine and the fact that it doesn’t have much memory; he tells her she can complain about one or the other but memory will up the price point further so she can’t complain about both. She asks why he is charging as much and he explains that it’s new and innovative in that it’s the first computer without programming language if he tells her she has a spot on her shirt, he describes it as such, not “look three centimeters down from your neck and then two centimeters over.”
Steve finds boxes of TIME Magazine in the back and asks why they are there. She tells him it was a mistake they were going to leave them on all the chairs since it talked about how personal computers were to be the future. But they changed their mind because it was a scathing article that focuses on Steve having an illegitimate daughter, Lisa, which he vehemently denied although one of the Apple coworkers seemed to refute his story. Steve complains about the TIME article, saying that they put a drawing of a man and a PC on the cover. He says he was up for Man of the Year but the journalist has some ill will towards him and that’s why he’s not on the cover. Joanna tells him Chrisann and Lisa are there and she begs him to meet with her, to keep her from badmouthing him to the 335 reporters in the lobby.
Joanna brings Chrisann and her precocious five-year-old daughter, Lisa, backstage. Chrisann and Steve begin fighting so Joanna leads Lisa out of the room. Joanna has gotten to know Lisa acting as a middle man for John, which we learn when Joanna repeats that Lisa said she loves Joanna’s speaking voice (Joanna has a slight Polish accent). Lisa tells Steve she knows he named one of the Apple computers, the LISA, after her. He tells her it’s something called a coincidence the machine actually stands for Local Integrated System Architecture. She is confused, wondering if he named her after the computer instead of vice versa. Joanna keeps him from loudly announcing his theory that Lisa isn’t his daughter to her. Finally alone by themselves, Chrisann is frantic, saying that he inferred in the article that she slept with 28% of the country’s population. He said he didn’t say that -- but with a paternity test that says he’s only 94.1% likely to be the father, he was quoted as saying that it meant 28% of the US population could be just as likely. She insists he called her a slut and points out that his Apple stock is up to 441 million yet her and his daughter are going to have to be on welfare. He responds by shouting that Lisa is not his daughter (hence his refusal to help out financially). Later, in private, Joanna points out that he must realize that Lisa looks an awfully lot like him.
Apple co-founder Steve “Woz” Wozniak is introduced, said to be socially awkward (but he’s played by a miscast Seth Rogen). Steve Jobs notices a man with a floppy disk in his pocket getting into an elevator. He asks what size shirt the man is wearing, what size shirt he himself is wearing. He now wants a shirt with a pocket so he can keep the floppy disk in it and pull it out during the demonstration. He tells Joanna to find someone who wears the same size shirt as him, in white, and to give him his shirt in exchange, as well as a free computer. She tells him, “Why white? What if it’s blue?” He tells her the computer is beige so he must wear white to offset it. Andy Hertzfeld finds Steve and tells him he still can’t get the voice feature to work. Steve tells him to fix it and Andy says they’re not a pit crew at Daytona; they can’t fix this in seconds. Steve tells Andy they didn’t have seconds, they had three weeks. The universe was created in a third of that time. Andy replies, “Well, someday, you’ll have to tell us how you did it.” Steve threatens to call out every single member who helped create the Macintosh computer on stage itemizing each team member by their creation and tells Andy that he will call him out by name in front of the hundreds of reporters when he gets to the “voice feature that didn’t work.”
Steve returns to the stage to practice his speech. Woz is in the nearly empty audience. He tries to convince Steve to acknowledge the Apple II team during his speech but Steve refuses. They go outside and have a long debate, with Woz telling Steve that the Apple II accounts for the bulk of Apple’s profits but Steve is dismissive, only focused on the Macintosh and how excited everyone is after seeing the famous Super Bowl “1984” ad. Woz mentions that the Board hated it but Steve doesn’t care about their opinion.
Steve goes back in the room with Chrisann and Lisa. He asks why she’s not in school and Lisa says that she woke up on time but forgot to set the alarm so her mom overslept. He asks why she should be in charge of setting the alarm but she says it’s just one of her chores. Chrisann attacks the Macintosh, asking how it’s going to change the world. He responds by telling her they donate many to underfunded schools. She asks how that answers her question. He sets Lisa up at the computer and tells her to use it however she wants, that she can click anywhere and it can’t be broken. While Lisa plays on the computer, he raves about how the machine is the next big thing and will revolutionize how computers are used. He checks on Lisa’s progress and then rotates the screen to Chrisann, revealing Lisa has used the MacPaint program to draw what she calls “an abstract.” He teaches her how to save the file she can already read the word “Save,” another sign that she is a gifted child. He has now warmed up to the little girl and tells Chrisann he will put enough money in her account to buy a house. She is skeptical but Joanna promises it will be so.
Steve goes into the room with all the technicians working furiously to fix the voice feature. There is discussion about how Steve wanted only two ports a modem and a printer while the others pitched to him eight. Andy Hertzfeld suggests something possibly unethical the program worked fine on a 512K so they can do the demonstration on that instead of the unit they’re showing (which is a 128K). Joanna comments that it is, in fact, quite unethical.
The audience is now filled with people. They stomp their feet and start a wave. Backstage, moments before going on, John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), the former president of Pepsi and now CEO of Apple, chats with Steve Jobs behind the projection screen, telling him he heard he’s behaving worse than usual that day, which he didn’t know was possible. John voices that the Board was unhappy with the “1984” ad and Steve is argumentative, saying it looks like it should win an Academy Award for Best Short Film. John points out that it doesn’t show the brand, it’s set in a dystopian future that the customers don’t live in, that there were real-life skinheads in it. Steve argues that that’s the look they wanted the characters to have but John counters that real skinheads are racists and they’re now associated with their brand if anyone finds out. Debating aside, it’s obviously Steve and John have much love for each other; John Sculley refers to himself as a father figure for Steve. John then asks Steve why he can only focus on being rejected instead of chosen, pointing out that if someone is adopted, it’s not that their parents spent time with him and then gave him away it’s that a couple chose him and agreed to raise him. He doesn’t give a solid response. He goes on stage as he is introduced but we don’t hear his speech.
Instead, through news footage, we hear that the Macintosh was a huge disappointment and it fell very short from Steve’s projected one million in three-month projection. Instead it only sold 50,000 in that time period. Steve was subsequently fired by Apple.
It is now 1988. Steve has launched NeXT, computer workstations designed for educational use. Joanna and him are preparing for the launch. The product is a black cube and Steve is focused on the design he takes pride in that the machine is a perfect cube and is angry that some of the dimensions are off. Joanna mentions recent articles about his firing from Apple and how Steve Wozniak was the only one to give a “no comment” in relation to whether he was fired or not. John Sculley actually has said nice things about him in Forbes Magazine, which he finds a bit surprising.
Lisa is backstage with Steve while he puts his foundation on, asking him all kinds of questions. She measures the NeXT with her ruler and says all the sides are the same. He tells her it’s a faulty ruler and she tells him if she had another ruler, she could measure that ruler but she doesn’t. She says as long as four sides are equal, they’re all equal but he says it’s a cube and it has six sides. He tells her the machine has to have the proper dimensions of cube but a few centimeters are skewed because the human eye don’t see a perfect cube as such. They have playful banter, revealing they have grown closer over the last four years.
Joanna has a discussion with Steve backstage and he is adamant about the cube being perfect, screaming at everyone. Someone suggests starting late while they perfect the model but Steve repeats that he never starts presentations late. Joanna tells him when he was at Apple, he made everyone uncomfortable and they had contests every year for the person who did the best job standing up to him. She won three years in a row. Joanna then tells him he has reality distortion and reveals that years ago, when he was upset about TIME Magazine’s cover, it wasn’t a PC on the front but a sculpture of a computer. And he was never up for Man of the Year. This new information changes his perspective of things.
Steve Wozniak comes to visit and mentions that Macworld Magazine has written up an interesting article about him. It states that Steve Jobs’ NeXT is so innovative, he may become Apple’s CEO. Steve and Woz go down to the orchestra pit. Steve Jobs says he once asked a conductor why his occupation exists, given he doesn’t do anything a metronome can’t do. The conductor told him musicians can play individual instruments but the conductor plays the orchestra. Steve is a bit condescending to Woz, which infuriates him. He points out that Steve isn’t an engineer or a designer. Woz built the circuit board, the graphical interface was stolen, so why does he constantly have to hear that Steve Jobs is a genius? Steve tells him that he is the conductor; they are just the musicians. Woz stops him as he walks away, telling him he only stopped by to give him a warning the NeXT computer is going to flop and it’s going to be his second failure in four years. Steve tells him, “Tell me something else I don’t already know.”
Joel Pforzheimer from GQ is there again. He asks Steve Jobs for a quote, on record, but Joanna gives him all the sound bites while Steve stays silent. Joel follows them into an elevator and Steve says the computer is just missing one thing but won’t say what. Joel tells Steve he’ll keep whatever he says off the record, both turning off the tape recorder and removing the cassette to prove he’s being genuine. Steve says the missing component is the OS (operating system). Joel asks how he is doing a launch for a computer without an operating system. Steve tells him they are using a demo which shows what it can potentially do but they haven’t finished creating these things yet.
John Sculley surprises Steve backstage, saying they need to bump up security. Steve thanks him for his positive Forbes quote but they later get into a heated conversation with Steve pointing out that he used the gentle Woz as a mouthpiece for the company in regards to his ousting. John asks why everyone thinks he fired Steve and complains that he’s getting death threats from computer users. They argue with Steve saying the Macintosh would have sold if they had set the price point at $1495 instead of $2495 but John says it’s not the price; users were unimpressed with the machine. They continue fighting and John asks Steve, “Why do you want everyone to dislike you?” Steve replies, “I don’t want them to dislike me. I’m just indifferent to if they do.” John tells him that Steve will be happy to hear that he dislikes him and always has. Steve admits that he actually liked John.
We learn who was really to blame for Steve’s firing (according to the film). Through a flashback, we see John surprising Steve at his home which has no furniture he only has a Macintosh set up on the ground which he tinkers with when he’s home. Sculley tells him the Board just decided they want to get rid of Steve. They argue, with Steve pointing out that John hated the famous “1984” ad; John says they had skinheads in it and they didn’t show the product. He points out how his Pepsi ads showed the soda, people drinking it. Steve replies, “Sorry to assume the consumer needs to be shown how to use the product.” He then accuses John of trying to keep the ad off the air but John tells him, it’s the opposite; without him, it wouldn’t have aired at all. They had purchased various air time two 30-second spots and one 60-second spot but after viewing the ad, the network didn’t want to air it and insisted they auction off their time. But he kept the 60-second spot and that’s how the commercial aired. Steve demands a meeting with the Board. Next, we see Steve and John in a conference room with the Board on a rainy night, which Steve recalls was the worst night of his life. Steve points out to the Board that he was the one who founded Apple, in a garage; he’s an inventor while they are hacks who just lead by a show of hands. He forces an ultimatum between keeping him, who he knows the Board already doesn’t want, or keeping John. Of course, the Board votes for Steve to be ousted so Steve had forced the vote just to make John look like he was responsible for his departure.
Steve goes to his dressing room where Chrisann is waiting, demanding more money because she has to go to the doctor for a sinus infection. But he points out that records show she spent $1500 of the money he’s given her to “bless her house,” which she could have used for things like the doctor. He is furious with her because he knows people who know people and they have reported that Chrisann threw a bowl at Lisa’s head. Chrisann defends the report, saying that she didn’t throw it at her head that she threw it at the ground and Lisa wasn’t even in the room. It is revealed that she was angry at Lisa for forgetting to set her alarm clock, which he says is not something a child should have to do anyway.
We learn that Lisa is now in a gifted school although Steve admits to having funded the school. Steve finds her on a catwalk, listening to a cassette on a Walkman. She says it’s two versions of the same old song. He asks her what the song is about and she says it’s in three parts first it’s about clouds, then love, and then life but in the second half, the singer begins to see these things in a new light. He knows the song, “Both Sides Now” by Joni Mitchell and tells her it’s not an “old” song or else he’d be “old.” He tells her she needs to get to school because she’s a truant and that’s a crime. On the elevator down, he asks the difference between the two versions. She said the first is “girlish” and the other one she doesn’t explain.
Joanna pulls Steve backstage, frantic. He playfully asks, “Why haven’t I ever slept with you?” and she replies, “Because we don’t love each other.” She tells him that getting the cube the exact right shape means nothing because the product is not going to do well. He tells her he knows. Steve reveals that the Macworld article was right his goal was to show his innovation and ideas so Apple would take notice and he can be reinstated back in the company, as CEO.
Chrisann and Lisa are leaving because Lisa now says she needs to get to school because she doesn’t want to commit a crime. Steve tells her he was joking about that. He asks her what the second version of the song was, the first being “girlish.” Lisa tells him “regretful” but he tells her she shouldn’t be regretful, she’s just a child. She tells him that is what the second version is like, a word that seems fitting now that Steve is warming up to his daughter, who he once denounced as his own. She hugs him goodbye and whispers to him privately, “I want to live with you.”
Years go by and through real archival footage, we see that Apple falters in the ‘90s with the one big gadget launch being The Newton, a PDA that turns whatever you write into computer text. It is mocked by the press and on “The Simpsons” and considered a failure.
It is now 1998. Steve is getting ready to launch the new iMac. He runs through his presentation for the handful of people gathered in the audience. The iMac is revealed, beautiful for its transparency, bright color, side compartment for all the ports. Steve says that the video on the projection screen was the best he’s ever seen. Andy Cunningham comes over and tells him it’s because she’s dimmed the Exit signs for a true blackout. He asks how she managed that and she tells him she connected the light sources of the Exit signs to their system so they can turn them off for seven seconds. She hands Steve quotes on the iMac but Joanna confiscates them and says it’s best for him not to hear any buzz in advance. Steve knows his daughter is there and asks someone to grab her to come visit with him backstage. He is told Lisa is with her friends but he is insistent someone brings her to him.
Joanna takes Steve backstage and she reveals that she has already reviewed the quotes and discloses what they say everyone is raving about the iMac and it is slated to sell a million units in three months. The statistics predict that 33% of the consumers will be people buying a personal computer for the first time and many PC users are slated to swap over to Mac. Steve says he already knows and jovially begins doing yoga. But Joanna changes the subject to something that makes her intensely upset she has found out that Steve has not paid for his daughter’s tuition at Harvard. He defends this decision stating that Lisa’s mom has sold the house he bought for them. Joanna tells him that’s not Lisa’s fault but Steve says Lisa could have stopped her from doing so. It’s later revealed that Chrisann sold the house at a fraction of its worth, the same thing she has done with sculptures she had previously bought at top dollar with the money Steve gave them. Joanna mentions that Chrisann needs money for doctor visits because she has a sinus infection. He tells her she’s had the same sinus infection for 15 years.
Joanna reveals that Andy has paid the first semester’s $25,000 tuition. He asks which Andy and she tells him, “Hertzfeld” and she tells him he needs to start calling the other Andy “Andrea.” He tells her he could but it’s not what he calls them that matters; everybody else would have to call her Andrea for him to know who they were talking about. Andy Hertzfeld is outside the door, listening to the conversation as Steve gets upset that Andy paid for his own daughter’s tuition. Andy finally makes his presence known. Joanna leaves as Steve and Andy talk.
Steve tells Andy that he will wire $25,000 into his account to reimburse him. Andy defends him paying for the tuition by explaining that word would let out that Steve Jobs’ daughter had to miss out on her first semester at Harvard because her dad refused to pay the money, and it would have made Apple look bad. Steve points out that the expenditure report lists Andy as having purchased other things for her Andy explains Lisa needed mittens because it gets cold in Cambridge. It is revealed that Steve is more concerned with something else his daughter has been seeing a therapist, at the encouragement of Andy, who seems to be closer to Lisa than Steve is. Andy explains that Lisa really enjoys the therapy, so what does it matter who suggested it? He also says that Lisa would like both of her parents to attend with her, revealing that Andy is in constant conversation with Lisa. Steve repeats what he had heard, that Andy suggested the therapist to Lisa to substitute for the lack of a strong male influence in her life. Andy admits it’s true.
All through the theater, there are blown-up photos of innovators from the past like Bob Dylan, Lucille Ball, etc. Someone asks who is the man in a photo. Steve tells him that it’s Alan Turing who single-handedly ended World War II and invented the personal computer. When Steve is asked if he’s going to include him in his speech, he says no because he just had to explain who he was. Someone mentions that Alan Turing killed himself by a poisoned apple and asks if that’s where the Apple logo with a bite taken out of it comes from. Steve says it doesn’t but it would be a good story.
Steve goes back onstage to finish tinkering with his presentation. He finally approves the picture of a shark as the demo computer’s wallpaper. The technician is annoyed, stating it’s the same as the 37 other shark images that Steve’s been shown and it was probably one of the earlier ones he initially rejected. Steve runs through his speech, which utilizes Bob Dylan lyrics (who, in real life, Steve Jobs was fond of). Woz is in the nearly empty audience again, like in the 1984 presentation, and he asks Steve if he’s going to acknowledge all the people he’s just laid off. Steve defends his decision to downsize and refuses to add anyone into his speech. He explains this by stating that there are A-players and B-players in the company and there’s no reason to include B-players in his speech. Woz is defiant, stating that they aren’t B-players, that the employees who design and build the machines are the reason the A-players can shine. Woz says he is sick of being treated like Ringo. Steve replies that everyone loves Ringo. He adds, “But why penalize John for being John? He is who he is and Ringo is who he is.” Woz says, “John Lennon is John Lennon because he wrote ‘Ticket to Ride.’ I wrote the Apple code.” Woz says that people ask him all the time why Steve gets acknowledgement and he’s always responded that Steve is a genius who invents and he prefers contributing from a hard workbench. But now he thinks Steve is simply an asshole. Steve defends himself by listing all of the improvements he’s made to Apple since becoming CEO. Steve tells him “It’s not binary. You can be decent and gifted at the same time.” He exits.
Backstage again, John Sculley sneaks into the area Joanna and Steve are clustered in. Joanna is quick to sneak John in as he was recently let go as Apple CEO and she doesn’t want the press to notice him. He gives Steve a Newton, the gadget that Apple thought would be a big hit but was a flop. They have a cordial dialogue and Steve reminds John of how he said that as an adopted child, he should feel selected, not rejected. But in reality, he was rejected the Catholic lawyer who originally adopted him sent him back to the adoption agency after a month. His mother refused to sign the adoption papers when the less-educated Jobs wanted to adopt him which Steve comments as being flabbergasting, that someone selects him and they’re still rejected. As they speak, we flashback to Steve in the early ‘80s trying to convince John, then president of Pepsi-Cola, to become CEO of Apple. He gets into an impassioned pitch about how the personal computer he's designing at Apple will be so inviting that everyone will have one, in the future. They are waited on by a nice Syrian waiter. John asks if Steve ever met his biological parents and Steve admits he did meet his biological mom. John asks if he ever wants to meet his dad and Steve says that they both have. We now see them again at the restaurant with the waiter he is Steve’s father, whom Steve tracked down. John asks if he ever told the man he was his dad but Steve says no but he actually brags to customers that Steve Jobs comes into the restaurant. He fears revealing their relationship would end up in a law suit of his dad claiming some ownership of Apple. Steve is ushered away but he gives John one last note about the Newton before he leaves it was the stylus that kept it from being a hit. He tells him, ‘Why use one unit when people already have five (he holds up his hand)?’ (Perhaps this a hint at the iPhone, which will become a huge hit for Apple years later; the Newton was the first PDA in the industry and it was the touch screens that made the iPhone so popular).
Outside, Steve is finally united with his daughter, who has been listening to music on her Walkman, just like in 1988. She is not happy to see her father. He tells her he’s wiring money to Andy and is glad her tuition is being paid for her. But that’s not what she is upset about Harvard has Internet access (i.e., it’s not as ubiquitous as it is today) and she was able to look up the TIME Magazine article from 1984 and knows Steve originally denied her as his daughter. She says that unknowingly, two of her professors have actually tried to reverse engineer the 28% statistic he listed (stemmed from there being only a 94.1% probability he is the father).
Joanna tries to get Steve on stage as it’s time to begin his speech but he doesn’t care about being late, counter to all the times he’s been adamant they have to start right on time. Lisa continues to berate her father and for once, he is gentle and apologetic. She looks at a giant photo of Bob Dylan on the wall and tells him he might give a speech quoting Bob Dylan lyrics and the computer might have a fast processing speed but gesturing to a blown up picture of the blue iMac it still looks like Judy Jetson’s Easy-Bake Oven. She storms off.
Steve finds Lisa on the roof parking lot, walking towards her beat-up car, preparing to leave. He stops her in her tracks, asking her if she knows what Apple’s LISA computer stands for. She says, ‘Yeah. I read the article. It’s the Local Integrated System Architecture.’ He points out those words don’t even make sense together. That it was named after her. He always knew she was his daughter. He reveals the abstract picture that Lisa designed on MacPaint in 1984; he had saved it all these years. She is touched by this. Joanna finds them on the roof and tells him he needs to go onstage. “Shelter from the Storm” by Bob Dylan song begins to play on the film’s soundtrack, apparently from Lisa’s Walkman. Steve eyes the portable cassette player stuffed into Joanna’s pocket and tells her she shouldn’t have to keep a giant machine on her to hear music. He’s inventing a new gadget that will allow her to play 1,000 songs from one tiny gadget. Or maybe 500 songs. Between 500 and 1,000 songs. (Obviously this is the iPod, which will revolutionize Apple as a company). Joanna repeats that he’s going to be late for his speech. But looking at his daughter lovingly, for once, Steve Jobs doesn’t care.
*CUT TO THE CHASE*
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The film takes place in three sequences, each taking place minutes before different product launches the Macintosh in 1984, right after the Super Bowl ad had aired; the NeXT cube in 1988, a computer that Steve Jobs launched on his own after being fired by the Apple Board; and the iMac in 1998 after Apple bought NeXT and Steve becomes their CEO. Before each of the launches, Steve is handled gracefully by Joanna Hoffman, encounters three members of the Apple development team -- CEO John Sculley, co-founder Steve Wozniak, and inventor Andy Hertzfeld and deals with his daughter, Lisa, who he initially denies being the father of.
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