Welcome to Mossberg, a weekly commentary and reviews column on The Verge and Re/code by veteran tech journalist Walt Mossberg, now an executive editor at The Verge and editor at large of Re/code.
In 1941, the brilliant writer and director Orson Welles made a movie loosely based on a famous, powerful, contemporary American business figure — the newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst — that showed him in a bad light. He took artistic liberties with the character. But he didn’t call the movie "Citizen Hearst." He called it "Citizen Kane," and it’s now regarded by many as the best film ever made.
In 2015, the brilliant writer Aaron Sorkin made a movie loosely based on a famous, powerful, contemporary American business figure — the technology innovator Steve Jobs — that showed him in a bad light. He, too, took artistic liberties with the character, and with events. But his entertaining work of fiction isn’t labeled for what it is. It’s called "Steve Jobs" and is based, in part, on the only authorized biography of the man.
As a result, for the multitudes of people who didn’t know the real Steve Jobs, Mr. Sorkin’s film, which opens nationally Friday, will seem like a factual, holistic portrait of a great man, despite the screenwriter’s continuing protests that it’s no such thing and wasn’t meant to be a "biopic."
Unlike Mr. Sorkin, I did know the real Steve Jobs, for about 14 years — the most productive and successful 14 years of his career running Apple, Inc. I spent scores of hours in private conversations with him over those years, and interviewed him numerous times onstage at a tech conference I co-produced. And the Steve Jobs portrayed in Sorkin’s film isn’t the man I knew.
Sorkin chose to cherry-pick and exaggerate some of the worst aspects of Jobs’s character, and to focus on a period of his career when he was young and immature. His film chooses to give enormous emphasis to perhaps the most shameful episode in Jobs’s personal life, the period when he denied paternity of an out-of-wedlock daughter.
It would be as if you made a movie called "JFK" almost entirely focused on Kennedy’s womanizing and political rivalries, and said nothing about civil rights and the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Sorkin opts to end the story just as Jobs is poised to both reel off an unprecedented string of world-changing products and to mature into a much broader, kinder manager and person.
Nobody basing their knowledge of Steve Jobs on this film would know that he had a happy marriage, that he loved his children, and that he led the creation of the iPhone. They wouldn’t have seen the passion of his actual product introductions, because the conceit of the film is that it takes place backstage just before three of them, and never shows the actual events. They would never have seen how he curated product design, took advice from colleagues, and steadfastly ignored Wall Street, because none of the movie shows him actually running Apple.
At the very end of the lengthy credits for Steve Jobs, there’s a statement in tiny type saying that the film includes material that is fictionalized and events that are invented. A gutsier movie would have put that disclaimer in big type, right at the beginning.
At least Hearst could fight back. He reportedly banned all coverage of "Citizen Kane" from his newspapers. Steve Jobs is dead and can’t defend himself, despite the fact that his former colleagues criticize the film and his wife appears to have tried to kill it.
The movie mangles too many facts to list here. Mr. Jobs’s intimates tell me he never held serious conversations with old collaborators and foes in the moments before he took the stage; he was intensely focused on his presentation. His early colleague, Joanna Hoffman, was long gone from Apple by the time Mr. Jobs returned to launch the iMac, contrary to what the movie says. And I knew former Apple CEO John Sculley, who is depicted as sort of a kind, sage figure in the film, but who, in my view and that of many others, wasn’t very sage in running Apple.
Most grievously, a movie-goer new to the Jobs story is led by Sorkin to believe that Jobs’s second company, NeXT, was nothing more than a feint, a strategy designed to let Jobs reclaim Apple. Jobs did return to Apple in 1997 because the company bought NeXT and its superior operating system. However, NeXT was a real company that lasted for 12 years and attracted investment from major players like Ross Perot. NeXT may have been a business failure, but it was technologically important; a NeXT computer was used to help create the World Wide Web.
When confronted with this NeXT history by my colleague Nilay Patel during an interview, Sorkin said, "Those facts that you’re talking about are not as important in this story as the fact that Steve was able to climb his way back to Apple, that NeXT was the car that drove him there."
Like every artist, Sorkin had the absolute right to make choices about how to portray people and events. And he has explained that he made the choices he did in this particular film because he decided to focus on points of "friction" rather than on his character’s "greatest hits." He notes that he is a huge fan of Apple products — that he writes on a Mac and uses an iPhone and an iPod.
Well, I have been a huge Aaron Sorkin fan. I have seen every film and TV series he’s written, most of them more than once. I still love watching random episodes of "The West Wing" and I even stuck with Sorkin through "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" and "The Newsroom," which were nowhere near as good as even his rookie TV series, "Sports Night."
In 2012, when I got to interview him onstage shortly after he agreed to write "Steve Jobs," colleagues teased me for being almost giddy about it.
But just as his love of his Mac doesn’t mean he loved its father, my love of Sorkin’s other work doesn’t mean I think he did right by Steve Jobs. Because he simply didn’t.
In fact, he treats Jobs worse than his purely fictional characters. Sorkin’s "West Wing" president, Jed Bartlet, hides a serious disease during an election, approves a cold-blooded assassination and fails to achieve his goals far more often than Jobs did. But he’s also allowed to show a noble, kind, principled, even funny side. Sorkin denies that chance to Jobs, though I can attest that the Apple boss, too, had such qualities, without which he could never have retained talent and succeeded in changing the world as he did. The vast majority of the Apple and Pixar executives I knew were fiercely loyal to Jobs. Several told me they cried at their desks when he died.
Jobs’s refined taste and dedication to high quality are treated in the movie purely as arrogance. Yet, ironically, I am told by two people who knew him well that his sense of taste made him a huge fan of Sorkin’s "West Wing." (One person even said staff tried to avoid disturbing him when it was on.)
I didn’t know Steve Jobs during the early parts of his career — his first stint at Apple and then his time running the failed NeXT — which take up most of the movie. And I know very little about his relationship with his daughter Lisa.
But the Steve Jobs I did know — the one the movie never shows — balanced his strong views and his impatience with a willingness to listen to others and to change his mind. In our many conversations, he loved to debate product and tech issues. Yes, we had some shouting matches, but we also had a lot of serious, calm conversation and even some laughs. And, unlike the man in the movie, I saw him listen to, and eventually agree with, contrary views raised by an employee.
In nearly every conversation we had, Steve Jobs bragged about his children and asked about mine. When he was battling the disease that killed him too young, he took time to ask me about my own health and to admonish me to stop smoking cigars. That person doesn’t appear in the Sorkin film.
Steve Jobs wasn’t perfect. He was difficult. He was unnecessarily rude and brusque at times. He lied. But he also mellowed and grew as a person, and that mellowing coincided with the best part of his career. Mr. Sorkin opts to hide all of that from his audience. The best of the real Steve Jobs story begins to unfold just as the "Steve Jobs" story ends.
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This article originally appeared on Recode.net.