When “The Social Network” came out in 2010, I wrote a column praising it for the way it captured the obsessional quality that marks great entrepreneurs.
The movie was about Mark Zuckerberg and the creation of Facebook. The screenplay was written by Aaron Sorkin, who won an Oscar for it. I knew that Sorkin had taken generous liberties with the facts, but isn’t that what happens when the movies adapt a true story?
Although I wasn’t particularly knowledgeable about Facebook’s origins, I argued that the insights of “The Social Network” into the culture of Silicon Valley trumped any niggling facts Sorkin might have ignored or distorted.
But now that I’ve seen Sorkin’s treatment of Steve Jobs, I’m revising that opinion. Unlike Zuckerberg, Jobs is somebody I followed closely for much of my career. And although “Steve Jobs,” the movie, is highly entertaining, it had little to do with the real Steve Jobs.
Sorkin has arranged the movie around three product launches, for the Macintosh computer in 1984, the NeXT computer in 1988 and the iMac in 1998, after Jobs returned to Apple.
The structure would be fine if it had conveyed the complicated reality of Steve Jobs.
But it doesn’t. Sorkin – as well as Michael Fassbender, the actor who plays Jobs – has failed to capture him in any meaningful sense. Fassbender exhibits none of Jobs’ many youthful mannerisms, and uses none of his oft-repeated phrases.
There are moments in the film, like the big “reconciliation” scene with his out-of-wedlock daughter, Lisa, that are almost offensively in opposition to the truth.
More important, the film simply doesn’t understand who he was and why he was successful.
For instance, we never see the man who could convince people that the sky was green. Especially in the NeXT section, Sorkin’s Jobs is a cynic who knows his product will fail, rather than the dreamer he was. Most important, Sorkin fails to convey Jobs’ unmatched ability to draw talented people to him, and get them to produce their best work.
As it turns out, Sorkin is quite proud of his disregard for facts. “What is the big deal about accuracy purely for accuracy’s sake?” he told New York magazine around the time “The Social Network” came out. The way he sees it, he is no mere screenwriter; rather, he’s an artist who can’t be bound by the events of a person’s life – even when he’s writing a movie about that person.
“Art isn’t about what happened,” he said in that interview. “And the properties of people and the properties of ‘characters’ are two completely different things.”
The problem is that Steve Jobs was a real person who lived a real life. My friend Tom Mallon, who writes historical fiction about politics, told me that he thought it was important, even in fiction, not to rewrite the public record, and to try to capture the essence of the real person, even though he is inventing thoughts and scenes and dialogue.
“If you deviate too much from the actual historical record,” he said, “the illusion is going to collapse.”
Tim Cook, Apple’s current chief executive, has decried the recent spate of Jobs movies as “opportunistic.” In the case of “Steve Jobs,” at least, that strikes me as exactly right. Sorkin and his fellow moviemakers are taking advantage of the feelings people have for the real Steve Jobs to sell tickets, yet the Steve Jobs he created is a figment of his imagination. It’s a con.
In a recent interview with Wired magazine, Sorkin insisted that “Steve Jobs” was “not a biopic.” He added, “I’m not quite sure what to call it.”
That’s easy. Fiction.
Joe Nocera writes for The New York Times.