Steve Jobs, the movie: an all too human story

Molly Wood Oct 10, 2015

“I had a very tough time getting past Steve’s relationship with his daughter,” says Aaron Sorkin, after a screening of his movie, “Steve Jobs” in San Francisco on Friday. “I really didn’t care about anything else he did.”

And after  more than two hours of Sorkin’s emotional machinations, neither did I, really.

The story of Jobs’ early refusal to acknowledge his daughter, Lisa, is a well known tale in Silicon Valley lore. It’s also the major theme of the highly fictionalized film—a lost little girl, trying to get the attention of a man who’s trying to get the attention of the entire world. It’s a brutal portrayal, and you can see Sorkin’s reluctance to forgive his character’s sins against this child.

Yet, Sorkin says it was that little girl, now grown up and known as Lisa Brennan-Jobs, who encouraged him to give the screen version of her father a more positive edit, if only slightly. (Brennan-Jobs, incidentally, reconciled with her father long before his death, and much sooner than the movie would have viewers believe.)

Still, leaving “Steve Jobs,” which is a great and terrible piece of filmmaking, I felt much the same way I felt after reading Walter Isaacson’s biography of theApple founder: profoundly sad. The Steve Jobs tale, dramatized as it may be, is still one that leaves behind a lot of human wreckage.

The movie itself is hard to watch, a bit like seeing a parent yell at a child in a store aisle, or seeing a bully take on someone helpless.  

I kept imagining Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, who was spotted in the audience, watching the Seth Rogen version of himself stubbornly trying to defend his legacy and genius against the imperious Jobs, and I cringed. In the movie, Jobs claims he’ll defend Woz to the death, but as Fassbender portrays Jobs, there’s absolutely no reason they would have become friends in the first place.

Is it a hit job? Yeah, a little. Sorkin is an angry writer, and there are few moments of nuance or humanity in actor Michael Fassbender’s Jobs. It’s a riveting performance, but whatever steps this version of Jobs takes toward redemption, they are too few. He’s a villain, and that takes much of the pleasure out of watching the movie. 

When asked about his choice to make the character so unyielding, Sorkin stumbled at first. He mumbled about trying to “do no harm” to his subjects, who have also included Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg (Sorkin wrote the screenplay for “The Social Network.” Sorkin said he took seriously the burden of portraying both men as “abstracts,” and as “conceits,” rather than, well, real people.

But then Sorkin found his voice.

“There are stories there,” he said. “And they should be written about by journalists, but they should be written about by artists, as well.”

And that’s true. Sorkin did his research, and said he read Isaacson’s book multiple times. He spoke with people in Jobs’ life, including Lisa Brennan-Jobs. And at the end of the day, the story he wanted to tell was the story about a man and his daughter; and a Hamlet-like tale of a king in exile, plotting his eventual and triumphant return.

See, artists tend to get hung up on the emotion. At a time when Silicon Valley seems happy to celebrate the tyrant—Jobs, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and his unforgiving Amazon workplace, Tesla irascible founder Elon Musk, Uber’s bulldog-like Travis Kalanick—we would do well to remember that people matter, too.

The happy technologists of Silicon Valley will say the story isn’t fair, and that the simple act of changing the world (twice over, arguably) should move us past all this petty squabbling about whether Jobs was or was not a nice guy. They’ll say this drama doesn’t serve us, and that all tales have more than one side, and after all, no one said genius was easy.

They will urge me to look beyond this blatant emotional manipulation.

To this I say, the last time I checked, it was still ok to be a human.

Jobs was, after all. Not entirely the human portrayed in the movie, who has few characteristics in common with most of the species. But flawed, by almost all accounts.

In the end, Aaron Sorkin pulls off the one of the more begrudging act of forgiveness in cinema history, and admits that even the small redemption he grants his Jobs character was actually for himself. A lot of people are disappointed, he acknowledges, that the villain unexpectedly softens up.

“I needed it,” Sorkin says, sort of sadly.

And you get the feeling he really hates this guy.

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