Can You Handle the Truth? Aaron Sorkin's Steve Jobs Movie is Going to be a Disaster
Here’s a prediction: Aaron Sorkin’s film adaptation of Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs biography is going to be a disaster. It will likely be a good-looking, entertaining disaster, full of fast-talking geniuses who deliciously get their comeuppance at the hand of the even smarter, faster-talking Jobs. When it opens at a theater near you in a few years’ time, the film will become the toast of Hollywood and an instant blockbuster, and not long after it will attain the status of documentary truth: Sorkin’s film will become the definitive account of Jobs’ life, the thing we’ll all think about when we try to remember Steve Jobs.
This will happen despite yourself, even if you understand that Sorkin is a talented but arrogant hack who doesn’t care about the truth. That’s what’s so dangerous about this film, and why I cringed, this week, when Sorkin took the stage at the D10 Conference and talked about Jobs. If Sorkin’s last movie and Isaacson’s book are any guide, you can expect this collaboration to completely, heroically misread what made the Apple founder so successful.
To understand why I’m so skeptical, look first at "The Social Network". The rise of Facebook is one of the most fascinating and important tech and business stories of the last decade. But Sorkin got the story wrong. He botched small details — Eduardo Saverin and Mark Zuckerberg weren’t really close friends; Zuckerberg, in real life, is not the least bit insecure (how could he be?) — and he botched the larger arc, missing key aspects of Zuckerberg’s personality and Facebook’s design that made the social network a runaway success.
Sorkin’s major error was to paint Facebook as a great idea, rather than as a great product. "The Social Network" revolves around the questions of a creative leap: Was it Zuckerberg or the Winklevosses who came up with Facebook? Did Zuck steal their concept? What did Zuck owe Saverin? It’s clear that to Sorkin, the most interesting moment in Facebook’s corporate life was the shady instant of its conception. Everything that happened afterward is irrelevant.
But in real life — to anyone who understands why Facebook represented a major departure from all the networks that came before it — who came up with the idea for Facebook is the least interesting part of the story. That’s because Facebook was not a creative leap. At the time of Facebook’s launch, social-networking was an old idea, even kind of a boring one. (About a year after Zuckerberg launched Facebook, MySpace was purchased by News Corporation — in other words, social networking was so old hat that even an old media company was betting on it.) Telling the story of Facebook by focusing on the question of its invention is a bit like telling the history of "The West Wing" and focusing on why Sorkin decided to shoot it in color. The question is beside the point. Facebook succeeded not because it was a new idea, but because it was led by a guy who executed on an old idea better than anyone else. But in "The Social Network", how Facebook did what it did is never addressed.
It would be bad enough if Sorkin were taking on Jobs by himself, but he isn’t. He’s adapting Walter Isaacson’s biography, which itself offered only hazy picture of the man. While Isaacson’s book is meticulously researched, it is poorly targeted—Isaacson focuses on the juiciest, most superficial aspects of Jobs’ life, especially his extreme arrogance and unkindness to those around him, but he fails to provide much insight into what animated his work at Apple.
The book glosses over Jobs’ key design and technical decisions, any deep discussions about the processes that led to Apple’s most famous products, and, even more fundamentally, how Jobs foresaw the mobile music, smartphone and tablet revolution. It skips questions about his management style: Why, when he returned to Apple in the 1990s, did Jobs suddenly become a much better boss than he’d been in the past? He learned to delegate better, to trust his subordinates’ instincts — how, and why? How did he develop his keynote presentation style? How did he come to rely on corporate secrecy? When Isaacson does address technology, he tends to do so inaccurately, as numerous critics have pointed out. See John’s Gruber’s discussion, for instance, on how Isaacson completely missed how Jobs’ work at NeXT colored everything that Apple has released in the last decade.
Could Sorkin somehow rescue Isaacson’s book, transforming it from a chronicle of Jobs’ jerkiness into a cinematic tale that dives into how Jobs triumphed in business? I have serious doubts. I’ve watched nearly everything that Aaron Sorkin has ever made, and — despite his getting "The Social Network" wrong — I’ve long considered myself a fan. I was irredeemably hooked to "The West Wing", "Sports Night", and I even sat through all of "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip". Sorkin’s stock in trade is the quick-speaking spinmeister, the guy who knows how to win the room with a cutting remark (“You can’t handle the truth!”) Sorkin is also enamored of good-guy assholes — people so smart they don’t have to play by the normal rules of society, and indeed actively scoff at those rules.
No doubt Jobs shared many of these characteristics. Here was a guy who long denied paternity of his first daughter (even after tests proved he was the father), a guy who freely parked in handicapped spots — he seems a perfect character for Sorkin. But it’s precisely because Jobs’ terrible qualities match up so well with Sorkin’s talents that we should be worried about this film.
Isaacson’s book reads like a manual on how to be an asshole, and Sorkin is going to want to mine all those parts for the screen, because that’s what he does best. And then what will we have? A movie about a guy who was great at being terrible — a sure hit, but not one that tells us anything about how Jobs pulled off the biggest corporate turnaround of all time.
I don’t mean to suggest that nobody can tell Jobs’ story well on screen. I’m only arguing that doing it well — doing it in a way that explicates Jobs’ genius rather than obscures it behind his flashier, unsavory side — requires the kind of care that Sorkin isn’t known for, and isn’t interested in. After all, Sorkin has said that he was glad Mark Zuckerberg didn’t cooperate with "The Social Network", because then he’d have to had to make the character more lifelike: “I feel like, had I met Mark, I would have felt a certain obligation to make the character sound like Mark, walk like Mark, all of those things,” he told New York magazine.
Sorkin also said: “I don’t want my fidelity to be to the truth; I want it to be to storytelling.” Seriously. Sorkin actually said that. He doesn’t care about the truth.
At the D Conference this week, Sorkin explained that he was still in the very earliest stages of writing the Jobs movie, and he expressed his misgivings about taking on the Apple founder. “There are so many people out there who know so much about him and revere him that I saw a minefield of disappointment,” Sorkin said. He’s not alone. This will be disappointing for sure.