Steve Jobs Movie: It Could Have Been Worse

To my huge surprise, I enjoyed Aaron Sorkin’s Steve Jobs film. I attended a (free) screening, assuming I would hate it, but came out mildly charmed. I also think many Apple/Steve Jobs fans, if they keep their expectations low, will end up enjoying it too.For Apple lovers, there were plenty of reasons to expect the film to be terrible. It was based on a deservedly hated book by Walter Isaacson that trashed Jobs as an asshole. Aaron Sorkin is kind of a jerk and recently attacked Tim Cook and Apple before quickly apologizing. Everyone involved, including advisors like Andy Hertzfeld and Steve Wozniak, have made it clear the film isn’t accurate, and didn’t even try hard to be. It’s no wonder Steve Jobs' wife, Laurene Powell Jobs, personally did everything in her power to try to stop it from being made.

Moreover, it suffers from all the typical faults of Aaron Sorkin’s writing in general. It’s overly talky, it’s self-important, and while Sorkin is lauded as writing great dialogue, all his characters, in this film and every film and television show he writes, all sound the same. Basically, like a middle aged white Manhattan intellectual trying really hard to say something clever. Man, woman, child, regardless of ethnicity or background, all sound like a wise cracking fifty year old screenwriter. For example, here’s this often quoted exchange from the film:

Steve Jobs: “You had three weeks… The universe was created in a third of that time.”
Andy Hertzfeld: “Well, sometime you’ll have to tell us how you did it.”

The comeback could have just have easily come out of the mouth of any of half a dozen characters at different points in the film, Chrissan Brennan, Joanna Hoffman, Steve Wozniak, etc. In fact, seems least likely to have been spoken by what is presented as a shyly mild mannered Andy Hertzfeld. Except it was time for Andy to have a witty comeback, and that rather old joke, fit the bill for the moment. The basic exchange also could have been dropped into the Social Network, or Moneyball or any of Sorkin’s TV shows, and as far as I know might have been. Of course, it doesn’t matter to Sorkin that Steve Jobs wasn’t big on bible references and wouldn’t be likely to lob such a softball setup. The real Steve Jobs would have said something more like, “You can do this! I know you can!”

The screenplay also chooses a very artificial form for presenting the story. Instead of trying to tell the larger scope of Steve Job’s life, or simply focus on a specific time period, the screenplay breaks the film into three parts, which each take place in “real time” just a few minutes before one of Steve Jobs' important keynotes. So one section focuses on 1984, another 1989 and then 1998. This is a hugely artificial construct, possibly chosen to give Sorkin a platform to show off as a writer of “clever” dialogue, or more likely out of laziness. (The guy works a lot and likes to crank through stuff. Any screenwriter will tell you, writing overly long dialogue is the easiest part of writing. Who wants to keep track of a bunch of dates, events and locations? Why not just pick three scenes, and not even bother to be accurate about them?) Whatever the reason, it certainly is a writing challenge. How can you possibly tell the life of a such a complex man in just three small “real time” segments? Or even make a watchable two hour movie?

Well, you can’t. Or at least Sorkin couldn’t. The device is quickly abandoned to allow the use of flashbacks that move all around time, because otherwise the film wouldn’t hold up at all. Which brings up the question, why chose that form if you’re not really going to stick to it? (Oh, right, laziness and a desire to show off what a great dialogue writer you are.)

Yet, for me, the device is probably the saving grace of the film. As someone who knows this Apple history very, very well, who actually lived (from a distance) through it, I found myself enjoying the chance to experience those key moments. To see the original Mac and Jobs putting on his bowtie to introduce it, to see the NeXT box and Steve Jobs in a suit, and finally the bondi blue Mac and Jobs' black turtleneck. It was fun to pick out all the familiar details and see imaginary “behind the scenes” of the moments leading up to those well remembered keynotes. It was like wandering through a swap meet and running into old magazines with Steve Jobs on the cover, discovering an orange iBook or software box for Hypercard. Yes, you might get some dust in your nose, but it’s worth it for the walk down memory lane.

Moreover, the strained artificiality of the device, in which various characters just happen to appear and interact with Jobs just before he goes on stage, helped with the obvious lack of accuracy. It’s so clear this isn’t what really happened, that I found myself more willing to suspend my disbelief when major and minor details were off.

Thus reminded not to take any of it seriously, Aaron Sorkin’s fast paced dialogue does occasionally have moments of humor and interest. We hear a fifty year old screenwriter (Michael Fassbender as Steve Jobs) arguing with a fifty year old screenwriter (Kate Winslet as Joanna Hoffman) about whether the Mac needed to talk in its introduction, only to be interrupted by a fifty year old screenwriter (Katherine Waterston as Chrisann Brennan) demanding child support. Jobs daughter, Lisa Brennan, makes an appearance in each segment, talking somewhat like a real young girl in the first two (mostly speaking very little) before emerging in the last part to talk like a fifty year old male screenwriter and get some real zingers in on her unreasonable dad.

If it sounds as if I’m damning the film with faint praise, well, yes, it just could have been a lot worst. It was absolutely the best Aaron Sorkin movie about Steve Jobs one could imagine being made. Trust me, it would not have gotten any better if he had actually tried to be accurate or bothered to write a full screenplay rather than three overly long scenes. (With flashbacks to fill in a story.) The direction is good, the production values excellent, and fine actors do their best to sound like real characters, who all happen to talk like fifty year old screenwriters. Moreover, Steve Wozniak got paid $200,000 for consulting an a completely fictitious work, which will hopefully make him less likely to keep bitching about Jobs owing him money on Breakout.

When almost everyone else who loved Steve Jobs was complaining about Walter Isaacson’s book, Andy Hertzfeld (who comes across as a really nice fifty year old screenwriter in the film) wrote an article which stated, “Steve Jobs got the biography that he wanted and deserved: a best selling, well written, unbiased, comprehensive account of his life and work by the biographer of Einstein and Franklin. As much as he valued simplicity, Steve was a complicated man, full of contradictions, so there’s plenty of room for many different takes on his life and legacy.”

Hertzfeld was right in many ways. Steve Jobs would have wanted his biography to have been a best seller, and for some reason he was insistent on Isaacson doing it. The problem is, I think Walter Isaacson decided he didn’t like Steve Jobs, and rushed through his book to cash in on his death and made little effort to understand him. Sorkin is, as Tim Cook accused him of being, also an opportunist, but I think Sorkin genuinely likes Steve Jobs as a person. In terms of being an demanding asshole, Steve Jobs looks like a pussycat compared to the average hard driving Hollywood studio exec, agent, movie star or Oscar winning screenwriter. Sorkin certainly wasn’t bothered by any of of Steve’s temperamental outbursts, and in some ways presents the first justification for Jobs’ behavior with Chrisann Brennan, who is portrayed in the film as not always having Lisa’s best interests in mind. For those who think Jobs was a terrible deadbeat dad, it’s actually nice to see the complex interactions between Jobs and Lisa. Much worse could have come from any Hollywood adaption of the Isaacson book.

Sorkin is loved by many critics and the film is getting a huge Oscar push. Odds are it is going to get a lot of nominations and do very well at the box office. Steve Jobs probably would have liked that.  If it wins some Oscars, I'm sure some of the winners will say nice things about him.

The completion of a big Hollywood film based on Steve Jobs life (let's forget the Ashton Kutcher version) now opens up the possibility of a TV mini-series on HBO or Netflix, a format that might work better for a more accurate version of Steve Jobs' life. (I suggest Laurene Powell Jobs contact Spike Lee to produce and direct that.) Maybe someone can convince Ken Burns to do a definitive history of Apple Computer.

Steve Jobs is simply too big a figure in American and world culture for this to be the last film, or even the definitive film, about his life. Maybe we’ll get a Quentin Tarantino version with even longer sparkling dialogue exchanges and some bloodshed, or a sweeping epic version by Steven Spielberg about his travels in India. South Park has already done an episode with Steve Jobs as a horror character. Perhaps Eddie Murphy will do a version where he does all the characters in different makeup. And the film rights to my sci-fi version, Eve's Hungry, are available.

In the meantime, we’ll have to settle for Aaron Sorkin’s version, a dusty trip to the swap meet to look over old history, peek at historic Macintosh, NeXT and iMac computers, and be reminded about how a young man with a passion for technology changed the world.

UPDATE:  The film is bombing at the box office.  They went wide too quickly and there simply wasn't a broad audience for it.   I'm not quite sure if this has more to do with a rejection of it's negative portrayal of Jobs, it's overall inaccuracy, or simply Sorkin's art film three act play structure.  Never-the-less, it will probably hurt its Oscar prospects, regardless of the reviews.