Aaron Sorkin’s love affair with Great Men comes to a head in Steve Jobs
If Aaron Sorkin could not find gainful employ as a screenwriter, he’d be penning history textbooks. As it is, he crafts his scripts like perspectives on the key figures of the 21st century written by a denizen of the 22nd, with all the reverence that 100 years of posterity and vindication would allow. Sorkin has no time for losers, wafflers, compromisers, cowards, or least of all, failures. To be anything less than the greatest of all time in your specific field is the single, solitary sin in the Sorkinverse; everything else can be forgiven. Curtness with underlings is no big deal when someone’s busy changing the goddamn world. A bit of brusqueness with those in immediate orbit is understandable, too. After all, being an unparalleled genius surrounded by folks too dim to recognize brilliance when they see it must be aggravating. For Sorkin, even outrightly venomous behavior can be absolved, provided that the subject at hand is capable of coughing up a memory traumatic enough to justify the cruelty as a pre-emptive strike against a world that never loved him.
The new Steve Jobs biopic helpfully titled Steve Jobs is a classic case of Sorkin bein’ Sorkin, but for the first time, it doesn’t quite work. It’s not because the film has no real antagonist (aside from mediocrity, maybe, and that’s a problem), and it’s not because of the excessively convenient three-act structure that laces conversations pregnant with import together in the minutes preceding three of Jobs’ big product launches (though that’s a problem, too). Sorkin has become less critical of his central hero, eager to vaunt him as a godhead while explaining away his faults instead of accepting them.
Danny Boyle received directorial credit for Steve Jobs, but with the exception of a few wholly superfluous stylistic flourishes#, this film belongs in toto to Aaron Sorkin. The writer’s legendary walk-and-talks dictate the strategies employed by Boyle’s agile camera, and thematically, Sorkin’s pet obsessions swallow the film whole. Michael Fassbender’s rendition of the late Apple visionary (a word to be revisited in just a moment) falls right in line with Sorkin’s dream team of elite success stories, where petty annoyances like decency and basic humanity fall back in the pursuit of absolute perfection.
If nothing else, Sorkin wants audiences to walk out of the theater secure in their knowledge that Steve Jobs was a real a-hole. It’s no secret that the Apple cofounder was a notorious control-freak, and his reputation as a megalomaniac high on his own mythos as a prophet of our technological future was public knowledge.
The film doesn’t shy away from Jobs’ turbulent personal life, either. Within the first five minutes, Jobs callously informs his tyke of a daughter Lisa that the computer program initialed L.I.S.A. was not named after her, and the similarity was a pure coincidence. Moments before, he had loudly insisted that Lisa was not his daughter at all, and that her mother, Steve’s high school girlfriend Chrisann (Katherine Waterston) was attempting to leech money from him. He condescends to his friends, berates his subordinates, demands the heavens and promises hell if he doesn’t get it. After he’s done shattering his child’s dreams, Jobs gives his programmer Andy Hertzfeldt (Michael Stuhlbarg) an ultimatum to fix a faulty demo in the computer within the thirty minutes before the unveiling, or kiss his job goodbye. Thirty minutes is plenty, Jobs explains, because God made the universe in a week. “Well, one day you’ll have to tell me how you did it,” Andy spits back.
Exchanges like these are hardly uncommon in the cinema of Sorkin. His heroes, elite as they may be, are defined by their flaws. The Social Network’s Mark Zuckerberg was the same way, feeling no compunction at flatly informing others that he was smarter than them. Billy Beane of Moneyball wasn’t quite as abrasive, but he was still adamant that he knew better than all of the well-established professionals in his immediate vicinity. Believing you know more than everybody else, in fact, might just be the hallmark of Sorkin’s career. Think back to Col. Nathan Jessep’s showstopping monologue in A Few Good Men — the implied corollary to “You can’t handle the truth!” is “But I can!” What’s more, history tends to prove Sorkin’s dickish iconoclasts right. Sabermetrics rewrote the rules of baseball. Apple is Apple, and Facebook is Facebook.
For someone with such a keen eye for the chinks in his knights’ shining armor, Sorkin’s unable to see his own. Sorkin never lets the his protagonists stray too far from their fundamental humanity, and he outs his own sentimental streak when attempting to illustrate that good may lie deep in the black hearts of the geniuses onscreen. Beane loved his kid a whole bunch, and ol’ Zuckerberg just had to friend-request Erica at the end. Jobs concludes the film with a simliar move, too, embracing the daughter he’s always shunned.
What separates Steve Jobs from past Sorkin successes (the easiest point of comparison must be The Social Network, a pretty tough act to live up to) is a sudden willingness to forgive.
Sorkin goes to great lengths to get us on Jobs’ side, laying out his tragic past of being given up for adoption as a child in an effort to rationalize his refusal to recognize his daughter away as fear of accepting himself. This, of course, is bull-tonky. Plenty of children given up for adoption lead emotionally healthy lives, with no trouble accepting children whatsoever. Sorkin wants to finish by cleansing Jobs’ soul so that he might ascend to a higher afterlife. The final scene of The Social Network refused to let Zuckerberg off the hook, even for a moment. As a member of Zuckerberg’s legal counsel tidies up her things to leave for the day, he asks her out for dinner. She rebuffs his advance and tells it like it is: “You’re not an asshole, you’re just trying so hard to be.” It’s a satisfying button, recognizing the vulnerable soul within Mark and accepting that it can coexist with his surface-level compulsions to assholery. No such anti-resolution takes place at the finale of Steve Jobs.
Sorkin instead ties everything up in a pretty bow, our martyr sanctified, the Shakespearean hero made into a graven object.
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