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Blending the Truth: Fact and Fiction in ‘Steve Jobs’

As a specimen of pop culture entertainment, director Danny Boyle’s biopic Steve Jobs — opening nationally on Friday — is one of the finest films of the year. Michael Fassbender is incandescent in the title role, portraying the Apple co-founder as a high-voltage visionary whose spitting, sparking genius is matched only by his capacity for arrogant cruelty.

But be aware that the audacious script, densely packed with screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s rapid-fire dialogue, plays fast and very loose with the facts. Sorkin himself has asserted that the film isn’t designed to be a traditional biopic. It’s more like an impressionist portrait painted with bold, lurid colors. And it’s not a flattering portrait, either.

As he demonstrated in The Social Network, Sorkin is a pitiless engineer when it comes to streamlining his scripts for narrative torque. The Steve Jobs story is an engine built for drama: No genuine effort is made to present Jobs as a fully formed character, and actual history is rewritten when required. Here are five key moments to watch for in the film, and the real stories behind them. (Warning: Spoilers dead ahead.)

1. Jobs and Wozniak square off

The film narrows its focus to three backstage sequences, each preceding a major product launch, with occasional flashbacks. Seth Rogen plays Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, who confronts Jobs in several highly charged scenes. It’s terrific drama, and the dialogue is so gorgeous you could enjoy the movie with your eyes closed.

But those confrontations are pure fiction. “Everything in the movie didn’t happen,” Wozniak told Bloomberg TV earlier this week. “Every scene that I’m in, I wasn’t talking to Steve Jobs at those events.”

Of course, if these scenes weren’t manufactured in, we would have been completely robbed of Rogen’s punchy performance. So, hooray for fiction, yes?

2. Jobs manipulates the fortunes of his NeXT computer as a kind of long-con gambit to return to Apple

In another high-drama exchange, Jobs confides to his long-suffering consigliere Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet) a stunning secret: His company NeXT is actually an elaborate corporate power play designed to force Apple to purchase the NeXT OS and bring Jobs back into the fold.

The idea is effective as a narrative intrigue, but it’s ludicrous conjecture at best. By the time Apple purchased the company, NeXT had been a going concern for 12 years. However, according to Walter Isaacson’s authorized biography, it is evidently true that Jobs officially launched the NeXT computer before the hardware or the OS were complete. So at least that provocative bit gets a high score on the truth-o-meter.

3. Jobs enrages anyone and everyone he works with

In a thread that runs throughout the entire film, Jobs is characterized as an emotionally arrested and arrogant iconoclast who antagonizes friends, foes, and family.

But a recurring criticism of the script, from industry insiders, is that the film’s portrayal of Jobs is egregiously lopsided. In a fascinating essay over at the Verge, veteran journalist Walter Mossberg writes:

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 begins to unfold just as Steve Jobs ends.

Sorkin surely understands that the antihero is in vogue.

4. Product launch events are a chaotic tangle of technical snafus and dramatic personal confrontations

Virtually all of the film’s most sensational moments take place backstage at the three product launch events around which the script is structured. Tension-filled and frequently funny, the launch events are a riot of desperate improvisations, uncomfortable shouting matches, and last-minute technical hot-wiring.

Sorkin’s creative license is in full effect throughout these scenes, and they’re masterfully sequenced to maximize dramatic conflict. All of the movie’s most interesting frictions happen here. But the backstage drama is entirely fictionalized. The technical crises never happened, and neither did those titanic showdowns. But you’ll want to watch, anyway: The Steve Jobs versus John Sculley exchange, in particular, is a heavyweight slugfest for the ages.

5. Prior to an important presentation, Jobs undertakes a curious podiatric hygiene ritual

In the movie’s most quietly bizarre scene, Jobs is shown preparing for a big speech by washing his feet … in a toilet.

Turns out, that moment was based in actual fact. An improvisation by Michael Fassbender, the moment was apparently inspired by one of Jobs’s most singular quirks. “It’s the only thing in the movie that’s not in the script,” Sorkin told Conan O'Brien. “It is a thing that Steve did. I don’t know why.”

The footbath is a nice little kicker, as it were, for a film that artfully blends fact and fiction. Steve Jobs may not be a particularly accurate biographical treatment, but it’s a hell of a movie with the best lead performance of the year. I’m calling it: Fassbender gets the Oscar. You read it here first.