Aaron Sorkin

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It bothers me to no end that Ron Howard’s Cinderella Man depicts boxer Max Baer as a semi-psychotic villain for the sake of narrative convenience. It’s cinematic license taken to an ugly extreme.

In general, the Hollywood biopic is a troubling compromise that will satisfy no one completely–or at least it shouldn’t. The best-case scenario is that you come away with some sort of an impressionistic truth but realize that, no, Richard Nixon never made a drunken, late-night phone call to David Frost.

Perhaps each film should be labeled with a Surgeon General-ish warning: “Believing the events of this film are true can be injurious to history.” That agreement has always been tacit, but I can’t tell you how many people over the years have cited the “facts” in Oliver Stone’s overwrought bullshit JFK. There’s really no easy answer.

Steven Levy, who reported on Steve Jobs and knew him, was troubled by his portrayal in the new Aaron Sorkin-Danny Boyle film. In a Backchannel Q&A, he interviewed the former about writing a screenplay on an actual historical figure. An excerpt:

Steven Levy:

Let’s take a specific example of history and fabrication. In the first act, you have Steve’s obsession with the 1983 Time Magazine story about him. You’re right to zero in on that — he was complaining about that when I interviewed him for Rolling Stone before the Macintosh launch, and he was complaining about it 20 years later.

Aaron Sorkin:

That’s right.

Steven Levy:

But you took it a step farther. In your screenplay, someone at Apple ordered boxes of the magazine and was going to place one on every seat in the shareholder’s meeting until someone figured out it would make Steve crazy. In real life, that didn’t happen.

Aaron Sorkin:

Right. That’s exactly the kind of thing I don’t mind making up. Here is what’s true, here is the important truth. As a matter of happy coincidence, Walter Isaacson, who was at Time Magazine in 1983 when all this happened, was able to tell me that Steve was never in the conversation for Man of the Year. Steve had always blamed Dan Kottke for spilling the beans in that article about Steve having to take a paternity test and that whole situation with Lisa and believed that was the reason why he didn’t get the cover. But, as Walter pointed out, it had nothing to do with Kottke — if you look at the cover, it’s a sculpture of a man at a desk with a computer, and that sculpture would have had to have been commissioned months and months in advance. In fact, the sculptor himself is a well known guy whose name I forget.

So that information is something that I want to use. I want to use it to introduce the paternity issue, I want to use it because it’s going to pay off in the third act both when Joanna [Hoffman] is giving a demonstration of his reality distortion field… And the final payoff is that Lisa, who now has Internet access at school, has read it — has read about her father denying that he’s not her father.

So I never worried that what the audience was going to go away with was there were cartons and cartons of Time Magazine backstage at this event. It didn’t seem to be important that the audience gets that right or wrong, that it was a fact of history. It has no negative effect on anyone’s life. You can’t say, who was the idiot who put those cartons of Time Magazine backstage? But that [represented] something truer and I felt this was an interesting way to dramatize it.•

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Say what you will about Bill Simmons, but the guy knows talent, as he abundantly proved when staffing up Grantland, his ESPN pop-culture-and-sports combo, which has gone far deeper in analysis of screen and sound and society than anyone had a right to expect. It’s been feared that an exodus of gifted people would follow his ugly divorce from the company, and that now seems to be the case. Sad, but even before the industry itself became fragile, the dynamic of the masthead always was. Erase the wrong name and others magically disappear.

Alex Pappademas, one the really perceptive critics there, has written about Aaron Sorkin’s new Steve Jobs dreamscape. An excerpt:

In Steve Jobs, Sorkin takes interactions and confrontations that occurred at different points in Jobs’s life, or not at all, and reimagines them as having taken place backstage in the minutes immediately before Jobs unveiled one of three new products — Apple’s Macintosh in 1984, the NeXT Computer in 1988, and the original Bondi blue iMac G3 in 1998. (Each sequence gets its own distinct look: grainy/nostalgic 16-millimeter for the Mac, sumptuous 35 for the NeXT, warts-and-all digital for the iMac.) The film’s more-than-a-little-bit cockamamy sub-premise is that on each of these crucially important days, Jobs also found himself scheduled for back-to-back come-to-Jesus meetings with people he’d wronged on his way to the top, including Lisa and her mother, Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston); Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen, putting deepening wrinkles of hurt in his Fozzie Bear rumble); and the company’s third CEO, John Sculley (Jeff Daniels, perfectly wry and wounded).

Sculley shows up as a slayable father figure/level boss in all three chapters, even though in real life he and Jobs rarely spoke after spring 1985, when Jobs fought Sculley for control of Apple’s board and lost. And while Mac marketing guru Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet) did follow Jobs from Apple to NeXT and was famously one of the few people who could stand up to him and live to tell the tale, she’d moved on to a position at General Magic and then to retirement by the time the iMac hit. I’m also going to assume Hoffman was more than the sassy-but-supportive Sorkin work-wife figure this movie makes her out to be. Of course, Sorkin has freely admitted that if any of these scenes actually happened the way he’s written them, it’d be news to him — but when you see the movie, chances are you’ll understand exactly why he played so fast and loose with history. By tossing out the biopic beat sheet and zeroing in on the parts of Jobs’s business that most resembled show business, Sorkin has moved Jobs’s story into his own comfort zone. It’s now a three-act backstage-panic comedy/melodrama about a brilliant, work-fixated white guy whose genius far exceeds his emotional intelligence and the people who can’t help but love him anyway.•

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"He NEVER friended me on Facebook." (Image by Raphaël Labbé.)

The opening scene of The Social Network, David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin’s brilliant takedown of Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg, features a momentous scene in which the aspiring tech titan is dumped by his girlfriend, Erica Albright, which leads him to begin experimenting with interactivty on the Internet. In the scene, Zuckerberg is presented as a prick and Albright as wronged, but the site Albright has started (it would seem to be real) isn’t exactly short on hubris. On the site, she describes herself as “Yes the Erica Albright who was dating Mark Zuckerberg the founder of the Social Networking website Facebook.” She mentions her long-ago beau and Facebook repeatedly. Well, milk it for all you can, Erica.

One interesting aspect of her posts is that she confirms that plenty of what happens in the movie is fiction, created wholecloth by Sorkin for his remarkably airtight script. The narrative arc of a movie has its demands, and fealty to facts has to be sacrificed. But is it ethical to fictionalize aspects of real people’s lives, especially when those people are alive and young and have most of their futures ahead of them? Zuckerberg took great liberties to achieve what he wanted, but Fincher and Sorkin also took some in making what is the best American film of the year. An excerpt from Albright’s blog:

“I went and saw the movie last night. Kind of crazy that someone is actually playing me in a movie! The movie definitely brought back some great memories….it made me miss my college years that’s for sure! (I feel soooo old) lol (: — I guess you could say the movie is ‘based on a true story’ but there are many scenarios that were soooo made up by Hollywood! As far as the two scenes I’m in, the first one is fairly accurate, we did ‘break-up’ over dinner, I do remember him ripping on my school (that wasn’t the first time)…but the second scene of me at dinner with my friends blowing Mark off never happened. (also he NEVER friended me on Facebook) lol! (:”

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