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.