Film

Dear Aaron Sorkin: If You’re Going To Keep Writing About Assholes, At Least Make It Interesting

'Steve Jobs' is exactly what you think.

One of humankind’s most intriguing mental quirks is our capacity for what George Orwell called doublethink — the acceptance of two totally contradictory things at once. Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, for instance, was a charismatic visionary, which we should admire. But he was also a narcissistic bully, which we should deplore. Bless our brains, which can reconcile that a dude who famously promised liberation from Orwellian conformity and professed admiration for maverick thinking also presided over a corporate culture more secretive and controlling than 1984’s Ministry of Truth.

Nonetheless, we view Steve as brilliant because he was an asshole — and, both in business and culturewe actively invest in assholes. It’s a pernicious myth that’s becoming more normalised the more it’s debated.

“2 + 2 = 5” – Jobs, Steve (2004), probably.

This isn’t so different to Danny Boyle’s new film Steve Jobs, which is fatally caught in Steve’s reality distortion field. I shouldn’t even call it Danny Boyle’s film really, because it lacks Boyle’s trademark visual imagination and mordant wit. It feels bland, inert, never rising above the level of a filmed play. And that’s because Boyle is the Steve Wozniak of this piece: the guy who handled the mechanics, while Aaron Sorkin’s laughably bad screenplay gets praised as brilliant and innovative.

Based on Walter Isaacson’s 2011 authorised biography — and Sorkin’s own interviews with key Steve associates — this screenplay is staggeringly lazy. It’s factually incorrect in almost every way, consisting of self-satisfied, expository patter and cringingly simplistic characterisation. And because of this, it simply jettisons any inconvenient biographical elements, such as Steve’s countercultural philosophical beliefs, and his stable, happy family life. I could cope with Sorkin’s grandstanding that the film is intended to be impressionistic — “a painting instead of a photograph” — if it had any thematic complexity. But instead, it settles for easy platitudes about Asshole Geniuses, and Sorkin’s Steve Jobs (Michael Fassbender, a ham with lashings of relish) never emerges as a fully-realised person.

Full Of Sound And Fury, Signifying Nothing

As if it were a play, Steve Jobs is in three acts around three key product launches: the 1984 Apple Macintosh launch; the 1988 launch of the NeXT cube during Steve’s ‘wilderness years’ after being ousted from Apple; and the 1998 iMac launch that marked his triumphant return to the company he’d founded. Boyle shot the 1984 scenes on 16mm film, 1988 on 35mm film and 1998 on digital.

With this, it follows that it’s an aggressively actorly film, stuffed with Sorkin’s trademark wads of dialogue. Luckily, the actors are uniformly terrific, and it’s enjoyable to watch them hustle along corridors, speechifying their faces off. Still, there’s something oppressive about the way the film’s momentum depends almost entirely on two-hander conversations. The central conceit that Steve always rehashes his past conflicts on product launch day comes to seem increasingly contrived, to the point where Sorkin feels compelled to lampshade it.

Revealing: my emotions!

The film’s ‘technology as theatre’ symbolism also feels unpleasantly self-satisfied. Steve, you see, is both maestro and diva, while Apple marketing chief Joanna Hoffman (a sparky Kate Winslet with a wobbly Polish accent) is his producer, and headset-wearing Andrea Cunningham (Sarah Snook, under-used) is his stage manager. He’s even standing in an orchestra pit as he tells his hangdog co-founder Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen, impressive in non-comedic mode), “I play the orchestra.”

As Woz tells our hero, “That feels like something that sounds good but doesn’t mean anything”. Indeed. Every character is paper-thin, existing only in relation to Steve. Woz is here to personify the modesty Steve lacks. “It’s not binary,” he says during a bitter public argument. “You can be decent and gifted at the same time.” Likewise, key Mac programmer Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg) is at first simply someone for Jobs to bully; later, Andy’s care for others operates as a foil for Jobs’ callousness.

Then there’s onetime Apple CEO John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), whose purpose is to point out that Steve’s entire personality stems from his anxiety about having been adopted. Sculley is his surrogate father, who then inflicts a second primal rejection upon him by firing him from Apple. In a confused mashup of Oedipus and the Prodigal Son parable, Steve returns to Apple and delights in killing off Sculley’s pet project, the Newton tablet. It’s totally on the nose.

“We’re Not In Love”: Sorkin’s Persisting Problem With Women

Thanks to the Sony hack, Sorkin is on record saying that male actors do more to earn their Oscars, because female film roles have “nothing close to the degree of difficulty” of male ones. Well, why can’t Sorkin dream up more complex, challenging roles for women? Maybe because he stinks at writing female characters.

Yeeeeeeeeeeah.

In Steve Jobs, Sorkin throws Steve’s ex-girlfriend Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston) under the bus. When we first meet her in 1984, Chrisann is furious and humiliated that she’s had to come begging for child support, and that he publicly refuses to acknowledge five-year-old Lisa (Makenzie Moss) as his daughter. She’s then painted with all the familiar female tropes of Sorkinland: she becomes a petulant whinger, a hippy-dippy flake, a spendthrift, a hypochondriac and a neglectful mother. Thanks to the film’s artificial narrative setup, Chrisann seems to be obsessively haunting Steve, hanging around his launches purely to blackmail him when really it’s Sorkin who needs her there.

“We’ll just sit and wait for a better plotline, thanks.”

Joanna is another familiar kind of Sorkin woman. She calls herself Steve’s “work wife” and is his moral conscience and most intimate confidante. She quietly absorbs his tantrums and jibes and performs all the interpersonal and emotional labour he refuses to take on. As he goes onstage, Joanna pats him affectionately: “Go make a dent in the universe.”

In an even worse moment, Steve asks Joanna, apropos of nothing, “Why haven’t we ever slept together?” And Joanna replies dismissively, “We’re not in love.”

I get the terrifying feeling that Sorkin simply can’t imagine any other reason not to fuck your boss. Then, only minutes later, Joanna is threatening to quit, tearfully saying “I love you, Steve…” Of all the perfectly legitimate reasons a talented person might leave their stressful, under-appreciated job, Joanna’s breaking point is her boss’s relationship with his daughter. What’s that even got to do with Joanna? In the real world, it makes no sense — but hey, Sorkin’s plot mechanics require Steve to resolve his daddy issues somehow.

That’s where Lisa comes in. Her role is to redeem her asshole dad — not by making him nicer, but by inspiring him to create! At first, Steve denies he named the Apple Lisa after her; but he warms to his five-year-old daughter after she draws an “abstract” artwork in MacPaint. For Jobs, who hates to allow outsiders to tinker with his products, Lisa is Apple’s ideal user: she won’t hack or modify the device, but just intuitively begins using it.

Aged nine (played by Ripley Sobo), Lisa does challenge her father’s obsessive thinking about the black NeXT cube. And when she’s 19 (played by Perla Haney-Jardine), Steve looks at Lisa’s Walkman, and offers his purest expression of paternal love: “I’m gonna put a thousand songs in your pocket.”

Unlike Alex Gibney’s more exploratory documentary Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine, this film never explains why Steve Jobs remains so compelling and divisive — it simply celebrates him, in the most glib, obvious way. Even Joshua Michael Stern’s 2013 film Jobs, starring Ashton Kutcher — which was panned at the time for its worshipful stodginess — looks better in comparison. It has a shaggy warmth and a sense of historical context that makes Boyle’s and Sorkin’s high-concept pantomime look even more phony. With Kutcher’s wily, gestural performance, Jobs understood that its subject led with carrots as well as sticks.

“I’m poorly made,” Steve confesses to Lisa, in what is supposed to be a climactic moment of self-insight in this latest film. But he could equally be talking about Steve Jobs.

Steve Jobs is in cinemas now.

Mel Campbell is a freelance journalist and cultural critic. She blogs on style, history and culture at Footpath Zeitgeist and tweets at@incrediblemelk.