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In “Steve Jobs” the Movie, Where’s the Real Steve Jobs?

What it lacks in accuracy, the movie Steve Jobs makes up for in a compelling character study of leadership–that is, how not to lead one’s followers during difficult times.

Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin was obviously aware of Walter Isaacson’s biography, but chose to disregard timelines and key facts like who was around for key product launches and why John Scully, played by Jeff Daniels (who incidentally looks nothing like the John Scully I once interviewed when he served as Apple’s CEO), can talk such rubbish. Also the real Scully disputes that the conversations between he and Jobs depicted in the film ever took place.)

The Financial Times said the film shows Jobs as manipulative, coldhearted, egotistical, ungenerous with praise, a financial miser. All true.”

Apple insiders will get confused because there are numerous examples of events taken out of context and dialogue that participants still living dispute ever happened. But maybe that isn’t the point. Sorkin’s film divides his protagonist’s life into three parts, much like an onstage play. In part one, Jobs is the fabled Apple leader filling the screen with his creative ego as well as his diabolical treatment of his daughter Lisa, who he claims is not his biological offspring. Sorkin’s Jobs, brilliantly played by Michael Fassbinder, is, at times, inspired and ruthless with equal measure.

Before the public launch of the Mac, he berates his chief engineer Andy Hertzfeld for not having the computer able to greet the theatrical audience by saying “hello” before its opening stage presentation. Jobs humiliates Hertzfeld further adding that he had weeks to fix this bug and considering that ”God created the world in seven days” what was his excuse? Hertzfeld responds by saying that’s “fascinating, you will have to tell me how you did it some day.”

People close to Apple say the film shows Jobs in a negative light. And in truth, in the above cited scene the background is filled with hapless Apple employees who are unwilling witnesses to Hertzfeld’s humiliation. Trembling and with eyes cast downward, these are not joyful employees so much as German POWs after Stalingrad. The Financial Times said the film shows Jobs as “manipulative, coldhearted, egotistical, ungenerous with praise, a financial miser.” All true, except his vision of a computer for everyone inspired many, even those who were on the receiving end of his impatience.

Consider Shakespeare’s Richard III, arguably the bard’s greatest villain. He is self aware, cunning, audacious—and brilliant. Despite being the villain, he has some of the best and most quoteable lines. We now know that for political reasons, Shakespeare distorted the historical record of the Plantagenet king to satisfy Tudor sensibilities. Richard almost certainly did not execute his two nephews in the Tower of London to discourage usurpers. And for all two years of his reign, he was a decent monarch.

Similarly, as difficult as Jobs was to work for (see Isaacson’s biography) he could be inspiring and was unarguably brilliant.

The way to view the film Steve Jobs is to divorce oneself from the historical figure many of us know. In fact, Sorkin should have given the film a different title and a fictional computer company to base it on.

Steve Jobs may not be the complete Steve Jobs, but it is a worthwhile study of human frailty and leadership which often come to the same thing.

Photo by David Paul Morris/Getty Images


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