Bud Tribble coined the term “reality distortion field” to describe Steve Jobs’s charisma and the mesmerizing effect he had on the team working on the original Macintosh.
On Friday, one can be forgiven for thinking the phrase actually refers to the movie that bears the Apple co-founder’s name.
Actor Michael Fassbender puts in a riveting performance as the Silicon Valley icon. But the Steve Jobs we came to know over the past 40 years rarely puts in an appearance. The Hollywood version of Jobs will be barely recognizable to those in Silicon Valley who had a front-row seat for the dramatic arc of his life, from early success to humbling failure to improbable comeback.
The film focuses on three pivotal events in Jobs’s career: The 1984 introduction of the Macintosh computer, the 1988 debut of the NeXTcube and the unveiling, in 1998, of the iMac. Academy Award-winning screenwriter Aaron Sorkin uses those actual events to take the audience on an imagined — as in, fictional — series of fast-paced exchanges in the minutes before the curtain would rise on the introduction of each product.
“It deviates from reality everywhere — almost nothing in it is like it really happened,” said original Mac team member Andy Hertzfeld, who advised on the film. “But ultimately that doesn’t matter that much. The purpose of the film is to entertain, inspire and move the audience, not to portray reality.”
The filmmakers wouldn’t make themselves available to Re/code. But in the movie’s marketing materials, Sorkin and Oscar-winning director Danny Boyle say their movie seeks to portray a character who fundamentally changed the nature of modern communication, but whose interpersonal relationships were deeply dysfunctional.
“There’s a wit and humor to our character of Steve, and an understanding of how people love finding someone who inspires them to push themselves,” Boyle said. “He was almost crazy in his determination to transform people.”
Sorkin based the film on the best-selling biography by Walter Isaacson, who interviewed the Apple co-founder more than 40 times and spoke with more than 100 family members, friends, competitors and colleagues. But the writer and director weren’t looking to create a biopic that rigidly adhered to the details of Jobs’s life — rather, they wanted to create an “impressionistic portrait” that drew from real-life events.
“That’s not real life,” Boyle said in the press materials for the film. “It’s a heightened version of real life.”
The film lingers on the most fraught relationships in Jobs’s life — those with his high school sweetheart, Chrisann Brennan, mother of his daughter, Lisa, whose paternity he initially denied; with John Sculley, the Apple CEO and father-figure who orchestrated Jobs’s firing; and with Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak.
Sorkin sought them all out as he developed the screenplay.
The story is populated by events that never happened — such as a dramatic reimagining of preparations for the Mac’s demo in which it blows up in rehearsal, instead of declaring, “Hello, I am Macintosh. It sure is great to get out of that bag” — and long, stinging exchanges that aren’t drawn from any of the six biographies written about Jobs.
Consider this argument between Jobs and the movie-version of Hertzfeld, in which the Apple leader demands that the “system error” that has rendered the Mac mute be fixed in time for the press unveiling.
“Fix it?” Hertzfeld asks, incredulous. “We’re not a pit crew at Daytona. It can’t be fixed in seconds.”
“You didn’t have seconds. You had three weeks,” Jobs responds. “The universe was created in a third of that time.”
“Well, some day you’ll have to tell us how you did it,” Hertzfeld says.
“Steve Jobs” is full of such entertaining put-downs that no one who joined Jobs backstage in the moments before a product launch had the temerity to deliver in real life. It’s almost like watching the cinematic version of revenge porn.
Sorkin employs the intense walk-and-talk exchanges that are his trademark, but never gives Jobs the opportunity to take the stage and deliver one of the bravura performances for which he was so well known.
No one doubts Jobs could be a forceful, single-minded jerk, especially during his first stint as Apple’s CEO. That’s well documented in a number of books and articles. But there’s little of the disarming charm, warmth or genius that would have inspired people to push themselves to their limits to win his approval.
It’s no wonder that Jobs’s widow, Laurene Powell Jobs, and the folks at Apple are bristling ahead of the movie’s Friday release.
The fireworks started weeks ago, with Apple CEO Tim Cook defending his friend on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” and calling the filmmakers “opportunistic.” Sorkin responded with a broadside of his own, which, like the film itself, didn’t rigidly adhere to the truth.
“If you’ve got a factory full of children in China assembling phones for 17 cents an hour, you’ve got a lot of nerve calling someone else opportunistic,” Sorkin said in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter. He later apologized, telling E! News that he’d gone “a little too far.”
Sorkin has played the Silicon Valley provocateur before, to critical and box office success. “The Social Network” portrayed Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg as an ambitious computer genius who stole the idea for Facebook and screwed his Harvard buddy, Eduardo Saverin, on the way to becoming a billionaire. The 2010 film’s tagline: “You don’t get to 500 million friends without making a few enemies.”
This time, Sorkin’s subject isn’t around to argue the point — an observation Apple designer Jony Ive made at the Vanity Fair Summit in San Francisco this week, decrying those who would “hijack” Jobs’s legacy.
Sorkin professes pure motives. “I hope the impression left is one of an intensely complicated and brilliant man — deeply flawed, but who, nonetheless, dreamed big and galvanized others to great effect,” he said in promotional materials. “Ultimately, I hope viewers will find him to be human — and someone who probably could have been happier if he didn’t think that kindness and genius were binary.”
Here’s the most recent trailer for the film:
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.