As I left a recent screening of Aaron Sorkin and Danny Boyle‘s Steve Jobs, I overheard two women ahead of me on the escalator descending to the street talking about the movie. “I thought I knew a lot about him,” said one. “But I didn’t know all that!”
Whatever my fellow theatergoer thinks, she didn’t actually learn anything new or significant about Steve Jobs from Steve Jobs. That doesn’t necessarily make it a bad movie; professional critics are weighing in on its cinematic qualities with mostly positive reviews. But this film does help cement a misguided and simplistic understanding of one of the greatest American business leaders and innovators.
The movie is full of fictions. Many are minor details. One character accuses Jobs of having “multiple billions of dollars”–but the movie ends in 1998, and Jobs didn’t actually get that kind of money until 2006, when Disney bought Pixar (a company that isn’t even mentioned in the movie). Other fictions are major, including several invented confrontations between Jobs and Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak, Mac genius Andy Hertzfeld, and ex-CEO John Sculley. And then there’s the grand fiction of omission in the final act, which hinges on an imagined reconciliation between Jobs and Lisa—the daughter whose paternity he once denied—before his 1998 introduction of the iMac. Moviegoers have no way of knowing that by 1998 the real Steve Jobs had been married for seven years, was raising three children with his wife, had brought Lisa under their roof, and had been profoundly changed by his family life in the slow-yet-sudden way that is so common to so many people.
Steve Jobs screenwriter Sorkin has claimed his right to tinker with history for the sake of art. In the past few weeks, he has asserted that his goal was never to create a biopic. “Walter [Isaacson]’s biography had to be about what happened,” Sorkin told Wired. “It had to be a piece of journalism. When I write something, there is actually a requirement to be subjective; it’s really the difference between a photograph and a painting.” He also told the Wall Street Journal, when asked about some of the movie’s most memorable lines of dialogue, “If any of them are real, it’s a remarkable coincidence.” And Sorkin has repeatedly cited something the late Mike Nichols told him during the creation of Charlie Wilson’s War: “Art isn’t about what happened.”
Biopics should never have to adhere to a stringent re-enactment of the facts. But this is a movie about a man who’s been dead just four years, whose legacy is still being defined. Most moviegoers will look at the movie as biography–which is a pity, since the character portrait Sorkin hopes to create by distorting the truth is so much less interesting and nuanced than Jobs really was.
These elisions serve to reinforce a tired stereotype of Jobs. The film’s title character is a one-trick pony, a grandstanding egotist who gets great work out of people by charming them or berating them. Humans stand in the way of his unchanging genius, at least until that unconvincing reunion with Lisa at the end. It’s an old and unsophisticated view that’s been trotted out since the early days of Apple. The fact that Sorkin’s dialogue crackles with energy under Danny Boyle’s direction doesn’t make it any more authentic.
The Steve Jobs portrayed in Steve Jobs could never have saved Apple. In the perpetually changing technology industry, simple stubbornness is the kiss of death. Sorkin has created a caricature, an entertaining and modern take on the archetypal tortured business genius. It’s kind of fun, especially for people who don’t know much about how business gets done. But characters like the “Steve Jobs” of this movie don’t last long in business—they burn out, or they get thrown out.
Extremely intelligent business leaders—and people—like Steve Jobs do more than grow. They learn from their mistakes, and they build upon their new understandings and transform accordingly. It took Steve Jobs many years to mature enough to do this, but when he did it, he did it spectacularly.
Jobs changed enormously, in ways Sorkin’s script doesn’t begin to address. The Apple cofounder became a manager for the long-term: Rather than just rallying the troops for one-off hits like the Mac, Jobs spent his last 14 years managing an incredibly talented executive team to one success after another—iMac, iTunes, iPod, OS X operating system, iPhone and iPad—with relatively little turnover. As a young man, Steve stopped caring about his products after their introduction. As an elder CEO, he regularly introduced new versions of laptops, desktops, and the iPod, iPhone, and iPad every year, ensuring long and steady revenue streams for Apple. He did so by embracing incremental progress, a concept that he had previously derided. Apple excelled at applying what it learned while making one version of a product to the next version–Jony Ive has said that this learning was as valuable as the products themselves. The young man who could focus like a laser on a single product grew into a leader with unparalleled peripheral vision, a man who was so open to new ideas and outside thinking that he could move Apple to great success in industries ranging from music and movies to telecommunications and retailing. Sometimes he even moved into those new fields because he (gasp!) listened to those around him, as when his executive team steered him away from movie editing and into the business of digital music.
The real man was a real man. He was complicated, and therefore could be mean, pig-headed, and wrong even on his best days. But he only became truly great because he was able to learn, grow, harness his strengths, and mitigate his weaknesses. Sorkin’s vision doesn’t capture any of this.
So here’s what I want to say to my fellow theatergoer on that escalator: You still don’t know all that. The real Steve Jobs was so much more than Steve Jobs.