Walt Mossberg: ‘The Steve Jobs I Knew Isn’t in This Movie’

Walt Mossberg:

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 Walter Isaacson’s authorized biography of the man.

I made the same comparison to Citizen Kane on last week’s episode of The Talk Show, with Serenity Caldwell. What I didn’t mention during the show is that calling this movie “Steve Jobs”, and using real names of real people to tell a largely fictional story, is purely cynical. They’re selling a lot more tickets to a movie about “Steve Jobs” and “Apple Computer” than they would if were about, say, a Jobs-like character named Dave Gibbs (or whatever) who was the headstrong founder of Orange Computer.

There’s a term for this in fiction: roman à clef. Other examples I can think of, in cinema: Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master (loosely based on L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology) and Martin Scorsese’s GoodFellas and Casino (both adapted from non-fiction books by Nicholas Pileggi).

I think Tim Cook was exactly right in calling this film “opportunistic”. It wouldn’t sell without the “Steve Jobs” name, but it’s only loosely — very loosely — about the real Steve Jobs.

If you want to see a movie where Steve Wozniak is begging Steve Jobs to thank the Apple II engineering team on stage in 1998’s iMac introduction, and in which Jobs blames Woz for the Newton, go buy a ticket. (In the real world, Woz left Apple as a full-time employee in 1985, and the last Apple II models were discontinued in 1993.)

See also: Mossberg talking with Nilay Patel about his experiences with Steve Jobs on their new-ish podcast, Ctrl-Walt-Delete.

Thursday, 22 October 2015