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Reality, Distortions, and Steve Jobs

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Critics I normally agree with have panned Steve Jobs, a film that audiences may have avoided but award nominations surely won’t. Ross Douthat in The New York Times rejected the premise, some of the performances, and even the ultimate moral. Robert Tracinski at The Federalist similarly attacks the film’s three-act-play conceit and questions Aaron Sorkin’s predilection for writing scripts about successful jerks. 

While Douthat, Trackinski, and others make some legitimate points, their attacks on Sorkin’s style and premise fall very flat to me. These critiques have two fundamental flaws.

First, every biopic has to simplify the subject’s life in order to dramatically present it in two hours. If anything, by openly embracing this fact of filmmaking, the premise of Jobs was a creative opportunity to be more transparent about how the filmmakers were dramatizing the character to ask what made the real-life genius tick.

Second, it’s not really disputed that the real Steve Jobs was both successful and a jerk. If ever there were an individual deserving of the Sorkin treatment, it’s Steve Jobs—a visionary who could be petty and vindictive, a genius whose tragedy drove him to greatness.

These tensions drive the film much like they drove the man, even if the dramatization is selective in its depiction and creates fiction to portray the reality. This is my primary problem with so much of the criticism of the film. By now, you know what you’re getting with an Aaron Sorkin film written like a three-act play about a man who sought out Walter Isaacson to write his authorized biography after Isaacson had written on Einstein and Franklin.

It’s difficult to argue that the film’s scenes and dialogue are factual, but it’s equally as difficult to argue that the Steve Jobs on screen doesn’t provide clear insight into the brilliance and rough edges of his life. What drove his boyish charm and once-in-a-generation innovation? Did his talent and drive cause his personal complications with family, colleagues, and friends or did he simply use that as an excuse? To what extent did Jobs’s past affect his future? Did he come to terms with these demons and how did his personal happiness make him a better or worse collaborator and inventor?

But the biggest question asked by the film is the one often asked about Jobs to those who knew him and worked with him: What was his reality and how distorted was it?

In an interview, Isaacson was asked, “It’s becoming well known that Jobs was able to create his Reality Distortion Field when it served him. Was it difficult for you to cut through the RDF and get beneath the narrative that he created? How did you do it?”

Isaacson replied:

He willfully bent reality so that you became convinced you could do the impossible, so you did. I never felt he was intentionally misleading me, but I did try to check every story. I did more than a hundred interviews. And he urged me not just to hear his version, but to interview as many people as possible. It was one of his many odd contradictions: He could distort reality, yet he was also brutally honest most of the time. He impressed upon me the value of honesty, rather than trying to whitewash things.

This is the Steve Jobs of the film—quickly swinging between giddy joy and frustrated anger, self-deception and self-reflection, arrogance and self-doubt. Who cares if the structure of the film is not realistic if the tensions within the title character are real?

One of the climactic parts of the film involves Steve Jobs answering a friend who asks how he can make such game-changing inventions yet still struggle with the people in his life. His response? “I’m poorly made.” Sorkin has commented on this line and called it pivotal to the film, sharing, “My hypothesis going into this was that deep down, Steve believed himself to be kind of an irreparably damaged person, unworthy of being liked or loved. But he had enormous talent and ability to make products.” Perhaps most importantly, this film intelligently forces the audience to ponder whether one of our nation’s most gifted creators may have been so successful because he wrestled with fallen and sinful human nature and whether we truly had a loving Creator? Regardless of whether one likes Sorkin or Jobs, that’s a reflection worth having.

[Picture: “Steve Jobs and Bill Gates (522695099)” by Joi Ito from Inbamura, Japan via Wikipedia. The original source is Joi Ito’s Flickr account, a photo entitled “Steve Jobs and Bill Gates.” Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Commons. No changes were made, nor does the use of this image suggest the creator or license holder supports this use of it or Fare Forward]

Joseph Williams

Joseph Williams is an associate counsel at the American Center for Law & Justice. Having studied economics, political science, and law while picking up two degrees from Vanderbilt University, Joseph is passionately nerdy about a variety of things, from sports and politics to education reform and pop culture. Born and raised in Memphis, TN, Joseph now lives in Nashville with his wife, Palmer, and his son, Jack.