Every time a movie “based on a true story” is released, it is met with an outcry from some corner of society. This is once again proving to be true with the new film Steve Jobs, which was released on Fri., Oct. 23.
A simple Google search of the movie reveals countless articles and discussions surrounding its truthfulness — articles such as “Steve Jobs Doesn’t Understand Steve Jobs” from Slate or “Steve Jobs movie is ‘almost nothing’ like reality” from cultofmac.com. This is the case with many other “based on a true story” films, though the most notable example is the 2010 portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg’s ascent to fame on the back of Facebook: The Social Network. What’s worse is that the Aaron Sorkin, the screenwriter who wrote The Social Network, also wrote Steve Jobs.
The outcry against The Social Network was so great that it included Zuckerberg himself, who, according to recently leaked emails from Sony CEO Michael Lynton, tried to prevent the movie from being made all together. In spite of his failure to do so, Zuckerberg eventually saw the film, and hated it, claiming it to be full of “made up stuff” and “hurtful.”
I’m sorry Hollywood hurt you, Mark. But as for The Social Network being full of “made up stuff,” well, that’s because it’s a movie (and not a documentary, at that). Sorkin’s aim was not to portray reality; it was to tell a story through film, and this almost always requires creative reinterpretation.
No story pulled from reality can be perfectly translated into a screenplay, but they can still provide a foundation upon which to “build” an entertaining and insightful film. This is what happened with The Social Network, and, if the early reviews are to be trusted, what happened with Steve Jobs as well. Unfortunately for the titans of Silicon Valley, their stories make for great films, and they better get used to it.
There is a case to be made for greater transparency, however. Often, films like Steve Jobs make it abundantly clear that they are based on true stories, but they skirt around the fact that they are not exactly true. To confirm this, I examined several films in my own library that are based on true stories: The Social Network, The Wolf of Wall Street, and Zero Dark Thirty. At no point do any of these make it clear that they may unfold differently than their real life counterparts did. They all, however, make it clear that they were based on true stories.
The concern here is not that people will believe the reinterpreted portions of “based on a true story” movies. Even if this were an epidemic occurrence, it would likely be of little consequence. The issue is instead how attitudes are affected by these films.
Prior to The Social Network, I was a big fan of Mark Zuckerberg. He was like my generation’s Bill Gates. I was also aware of the movie’s sometimes questionable authenticity, and I was ready to stand by Zuckerberg for its duration. Despite all this, when I left the theater, the movie came with me. Its darkly overtoned Zuckerberg and my admirable Zuckerberg could not coexist, and over time my attitude toward Zuckerberg shifted to the former.
All movie genres have the ability to touch our attitudes and cause us to feel differently. But unlike other movie genres, movies based on real events can shift attitudes that are directly connected to real life. The Wolf of Wall Street gives the life of a Wall Street stockbroker a certain appeal; what if someone is nudged down that same path and achieves the same profession? Zero Dark Thirty is very patriotic in some regards; could this present ethical issues?
I love movies that are based on current events and don’t really want to see their conventions heavily modified. As movie watchers, we need to hold the notion that movies are not, in fact, real life as close to surface of awareness as possible, in order to possibly see our attitudes realign in real time and know that change occurred.
And to any filmmakers out there reading this, please, make it clear that your movie is based in reality, not that it is reality.