Sunday, October 25, 2015

Movie Review: Steve Jobs

I have thoroughly enjoyed Aaron Sorkin’s writing through the years.  Besides being a brilliant playwright and screenwriter, Sorkin seems to always “get it.”  Whether “it” is how a late night TV sports show operates, or the inner workings of the White House, or “Code Reds.”  Or a late night live comedy show. Sorkin is able to somehow grok the essence of any environment or situation and astutely present it in a compelling manner.

In his fictional writing he creates such perfectly crafted characters that the actors portraying them instinctively and seemingly effortlessly become them, and the viewers watching them instinctively and effortlessly identify with them, admire them, and love them.  I’d like my President to be Andrew Shepherd, or Josiah Bartlet.  I’d love to have friends like Matt Albie and Danny Tripp.  Or Jeremy Goodwin.  And so on.  Sorkin’s characters are endearing, enduring, and unforgettable.

When asked to recreate non-fictional characters, such as in “The Social Network,” Sorkin is somehow able to make them ring true.  Even though every single scene in his Oscar-winning adapted screenplay is a pure fabrication (as was the case with the book it was based on), watching them makes us feel like we understand the characters and their motivations.  We feel like we know all about Facebook’s origin story.  Even though we don’t.

When I first heard that Sorkin took on the adaptation of Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs biography into a screenplay, I was beyond myself with excitement.  My favorite screenwriter, writing about a subject dear to my heart.  I couldn’t wait to see it.  Yesterday, I saw it.

And I was uncomfortable during every minute of it.

Steve Jobs” is, without question, a major accomplishment as a motion picture.  Using nothing but character interactions and dialog, Sorkin and director Danny Boyle crafted a dramatic tour de force.  The writing is crisp, dense, and meaningful, and the actors slip into their characters brilliantly (Kate Winslet’s in-and-out Polish accent notwithstanding).  The problem is, those characters, and the scenes they find themselves in, simply don’t ring true, at least to anyone even somewhat acquainted with the facts.  

For once, Aaron Sorkin didn’t “get it.”

As Sorkin and Boyle have pointed out ad nauseum, “Steve Jobs” was not meant to be a biopic.  It is not a photograph, they have said, it is a painting.  Like “The Social Network,” “Steve Jobs” is made up of scenes that never took place.  But unlike “The Social Network,” “Steve Jobs” feels as artificial as it is.

Granted, I may feel this way simply because I am unfamiliar with the details of Facebook’s true origin story, and quite familiar with those of Apple’s.  Or maybe Sorkin nailed the essence of Mark Zuckerberg to the point that the “painting” came alive despite its infidelity with the truth.  Regardless, although “Steve Jobs” is compelling as a movie in a vacuum, it fails to capture the essence of Steve Jobs, the man, or of Apple, Inc., the company.  Maybe it would work as a film à clef, but then it should not have been named “Steve Jobs.”  “Citizen Kane” was not named “Citizen Hearst” after all.

Aaron Sorkin’s work has always made me feel comfortable, and I have always cared about his characters, fictional and nonfictional.  But, again, I was uncomfortable during every minute of “Steve Jobs,”  because I knew that everything was wrong.  And the problem was not that it was a painting instead of a photograph.  The problem was that the painting was flawed, misleading and incomplete.

As I indicated, I’m not familiar with Facebook’s true origin story.  The fabricated scenes in “The Social Network” rang true to me, whether due to my ignorance of the details, or because the scenes captured the essence of the subject matter.  “Steve Jobs,” failed to capture the essence of my personal understanding of Steve Jobs, and, because of that, I was unable to suspend disbelief at the egregious liberties the movie took with the facts. It made me uncomfortable to see all of the personal  interactions taking place in the minutes before product announcements, even though I knew it was a storytelling device, because not only did they not happen, they are implausible.  It made me uncomfortable to see John Sculley interacting with Jobs after 1985, because I know he never did.  It made me uncomfortable to see Steve Wozniak imploring Jobs to acknowledge the Apple II team in 1998, since Woz left Apple in 1985, and the Apple II was discontinued in 1993.  It made me uncomfortable to see NeXT so inaccurately portrayed as nothing but a ruse designed by Jobs to get back to Apple.  And it made me uncomfortable that the movie ended without even considering the last 14 years of Jobs’s life, which perhaps would have represented the perfect counterbalance to the 14 years portrayed in “Steve Jobs.”

Unlike any other Sorkin work I am aware of, “Steve Jobs” failed to capture the essence of the subject matter.  While a compelling movie, “Steve Jobs” is a gross misrepresentation of Steve Jobs.  

And that is unfair to everyone involved.

Monday, October 5, 2015


Simple question: if you are a linebacker and cleanly sack the opposing team’s quarterback, what do you do when he’s on the ground?

a, Reach out and help him up.
b. Celebrate your accomplishment by dancing around his prone body.

I recently posed that question to a millennial who I know to be thoroughly kind, decent and fair.  His answer: you dance around the humiliated quarterback in order to intimidate him further and make him more nervous (and more likely to make a mistake) next time.   Moreover, if a clean hit results in an injury to the quarterback, all the better since he will be out of commission for a few games, giving the sacker’s team an advantage.

I was absolutely flabbergasted.  Sportsmanship may not be dead, but it’s clearly on life support.

In baseball, much has been made lately about bat flips, home run admiration and celebrations in general.  Jorge Ortiz wrote a truly cringeworthy piece on USA Today where he tried to frame the issue around racial and ethnic “cultural differences.”   Left-handed pitcher C.J. Nitkowski, a former 19-year major leaguer, answered Ortiz with a much more thoughtful piece on Fox Sports.  Nitkowski’s point: major leaguers have always determined what constitutes poor sportsmanship amongst themselves, and clashes have occurred since the game began.  From his article:

I mostly discount the racial component of Jorge’s piece. Players take issue with other players all the time, regardless of where they were born. The numbers cited in that column are pure coincidence.

I agree with Nitkowski, and am offended by Ortiz’s (and many others’) patronizing attitude toward African-Americans and Latinos in sport, dismissing their particular sportsmanship transgressions as somehow related to their culture or background, as succinctly expressed in this quote from Dan Le Batard’s daily sports talk show (helpfully provided by the aforementioned millennial):

"cultures do funerals differently, weddings differently, dance differently, live differently so it makes sense they would play baseball differently too."

Racial, ethnic and cultural diversity enriches, strengthens and vastly improves any environment, whether a sport, an industry or a nation.  Yet cultural differences can be daunting.  No doubt, a so-called Jazz Funeral in New Orleans differs vastly from an Orthodox Jewish funeral in Brooklyn.  But, does Le Batard suggest that it would be OK for a New Orleanian attending an orthodox funeral to pull out a trumpet and belt out “When the Saints Go Marching In” because of his different culture?

Of course not.  You respect the culture of the wedding you attend, regardless of your own culture.  Likewise, you respect the culture, traditions and unwritten rules of Major League Baseball, which have evolved for over 140 years, gradually incorporating elements from the different cultures represented in the game, and will continue to do so.  

The underlying issue, though, is not about cultural differences, or unwritten rules.  It is about sportsmanship.  Sportsmanship transcends culture.  Showing someone up is poor sportsmanship, period.  Taunting someone is poor sportsmanship, period.  Helping up an opponent is good sportsmanship, period.

Acts of good sportsmanship rise above the artificial construct of sport and into the realm of reality.  By helping your opponent up after knocking him down, you are saying, “You are my adversary, but not my enemy.  Under the rules of this game, I knocked you down.  Under the rules of our common humanity, I’ll help you up.”  My millennial friend would argue that acts of humanity in sport denote weakness, that they lessen your chance of winning future contests.  And millions of dollars hang in the balance.

Oh, well, allow me to retort.  Magnanimous acts are marks of strength and maturity.  Dancing around a fallen opponent, admiring a home run and flipping your bat are nothing but childish braggadocio.  Sorry, Dan, culture is not relevant here.  These are universal truths.  To imply otherwise, to use someone’s culture as an excuse for his poor sportsmanship, is condescending and insulting.

By taunting, intimidating and/or humiliating fellow human beings, be it in sport or anywhere else, we are not winning.  We are losing.  Our humanity.