This new Steve Jobs movie, the one directed by Danny Boyle and written by Aaron Sorkin, is fantastic. I have rarely been so electrified by a movie. It’s swift and beautiful and every one of the characters has such a distinct visual and personality. It’s lovingly crafted in the way that Jobs’ products were lovingly crafted. I particularly liked how the characters’ looks changed through the years, as styles changed and they grew older (in fact, the only one that didn’t work was Jobs himself. The alteration in his look between the 1988 and 1999 was utterly jarring. He went from being suited and perfectly buttoned up to looking like a bum.)
I’m way more familiar with Aaron Sorkin’s work than I am with Danny Boyle’s, so I’m going to commit the fallacy of referring to this as Sorkin’s movie. To be fair, it was FULL of Sorkin trademarks, right down to the extended walk-and-talk sequences (each act was a forty-minute walk and talk that was usually very tightly centered around Michael Fassbender’s Jobs character, with maybe one or two cut-aways to Kate Winslet’s character–she plays Jobs’ VP of Marketing, Joanna Hoffmann, or to whichever actress is playing Jobs’ daughter in this time period).
I loved the movie the way I’ve loved the best of Aaron Sorkin’s stuff. The dialogue is so fast and so smart, it’s just pleasurable to see and feel human minds move at such an intense speed. In the worst of his work, this strength can turn into pain, as the characters say such godawfully smarmy and annoying stuff. But in this movie that was ameliorated. Jobs was incredibly smarmy, but the movie understood that, and delighted on calling him out on it. (My favorite line was when his daughter points to the iMac and is like, “You can talk all you want about Picasso and design thinking and the opera and all of that, but nothing is going to change the fact that this looks like Judy Jetson’s Easy-Bake oven).
You know what the movie is like. This Steve Jobs is a monster. Right from the beginning, he’s unredeemably bad. Not only is he a dishonest businessman, but he is quite cruel to his daughter. In the first fifteen minutes of the movie he sits down and carefully explains to her that his computer, the LISA, is not named after her: the similarity in names is just a coincidence. He is worse in this movie than he ever could’ve been in life. He alienates everyone, and he does it for no reason. Even at the very end of the movie, I’m a little mystified as to why he was so awful to his daughter. He tries to sum it up by saying, “I’m badly made,” but that’s not an explanation–it’s an non-explanation. The movie spends two hours talking about him. Everyone in the film is obsessed with trying to explain him, but in the end he’s still such a cypher. As far as I understand it, the movie implies that his central problem is a need for control. At one point he berates an assistant because he asked for a complete blackout in the auditorium, but the exit lights are still on. Even that tiny amount of light is too much for him.
Okay, so he needs control. But there’s nothing more there. Why does he need control? What does it do for him? At the end of the movie, I still have no idea. He was adopted? So what. I don’t disbelieve that being adopted could cause this kind of pathology, but it’s not clear that Jobs believes that about himself. What’s really missing here is the interior life of Steve Jobs. What does he tell himself about his own actions? Why does he believe that he acts this way? How does he justify mistreating his daughter and his oldest friend? In the movie portrait of him, he talks and he talks, but we’re never given access to his interior life.
I think that’s the reason for the prime flaw of the movie–the way it constantly needs to contextualize him. Everyone is always telling stories about Jobs or analyzing him. They’ll have a big conflict with him, maybe about his refusal to give credit to anyone else, and then somebody will say, “Why are you like that? Are you really so petty that you refuse to acknowledge the worth of a project just because you weren’t involved in it?”
And that’s bad writing. It’s too much explanation. And in some ways, a bait-and-switch is being pulled here. The explanation is offered because his behavior needs an explanation. But it’s not at all clear that the explanation is accurate. Is that why he refuses to give the other team any credit? Because of his ego? Because he can’t imagine that anyone else could be right? I don’t know. The movie hasn’t demonstrated that. It hasn’t made that case to me. The portrait of Jobs is incomplete. And in many ways it’s a huge artistic failure, because this is NOT the real Jobs. Lies have been told here. Conversations–entire relationships–have been invented. And the only justification for doing that is if you’re going to end up telling a coherent story, and in this case he doesn’t do that.
But you know what? The movie is still excellent. Jobs is spellbinding. You can’t help but watch him and wonder about him. And I’m not one of those hacks who’ll throw up their hands and be like, “That ambiguity is exactly why the movie is good.” No, that’s bullshit. The movie goes beyond ambiguity. It abdicates on its responsibility to tell a coherent story, and I don’t think that’s right. But the thing it does is so rare. It creates a group of people who feel so fully alive. In that, in those moments, they feel present. It’s almost an idealistic vision–people who’ve come together to do a very hard thing–to launch a product–and are so focused on doing it. I don’t know. That’s the best way I can explain the movie’s appeal. The aliveness.
And not all of Sorkin’s work has that quality. Much of it feels the opposite. The Newsroom, for instance, felt dead. In that work, people were tools. They existed purely in order to make points. Here it’s the opposite. It’s like they’ve escaped from Sorkin’s control. Everyone knows that he has contempt for technology and for the people who worship it. And yet he also has a tremendous amount of talent. And somehow that contempt has stripped away alot of the preachiness, so that we’re left with people simply existing in the moment.
The movie did make me a little angry at Sorkin. He is such an amazing writer–better than I’ll ever be, probably–but he seems utterly unable to overcome his tics. For instance, every one of his stories features the same woman character. It’s Emily Mortimer in the Newsroom, Amanda Peet in Studio 60, Donna Moss in The West Wing, and Felicity Huffman in Sports Night (as well as Julia Roberts in Charlie Wilson’s War). Only Moneyball lacks this character–perhaps because that movie had NO women). You know who I’m talking about. It’s the strong, talented woman who follows an arrogant, flawed man around and points out his faults but is also devoted to him and does what he says. It’s so fucking annoying. In this movie it’s Kate Winslet. She’s amazing! Even her voice, with its half-Polish accent, is brilliant. But she isn’t given any kind of story! Why can’t he rise above this! You just want to slap him! Reverse the sexes! That’s all it’d take to create something so fresh and surprising. But he can’t do it. I don’t know why. I think it might be because he simply can’t imagine a woman in a truly powerful position–in his shows even when women are nominally in charge, as in Studio 60 or The News Room, they end up in supporting roles, enabling and comforting the men who truly carry the story forward).
It’s such a goddamn waste.
See the movie, though! It’s fantastic! Write back to me and tell me if you bought any of its (many) explanations for why its version of Steve Jobs was such a monster.
(P.S. Seth Rogen is fantastic in this. He’s playing the typical Seth Rogen schmo, but very stripped down. And he’s so completely lovable! I mean I just wanted to hug him.)