The Problem with “Steve Jobs”
How the heart of a great screenplay got lost in translation
Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs is not, contrary to popular belief, a movie about Steve Jobs. But that’s not because Aaron Sorkin didn’t write one.
Plenty of ink has already been spilled in the weeks since the film’s Telluride premiere over its lack of fidelity to historical fact. This piece is not about that. As anyone who’s ever spent any amount of time breaking the beats of a screenplay or bashing out monospaced dialogue between abbreviated sluglines will tell you, fidelity makes for shitty movies. It’s common — nay, required — for screenwriters to fudge timelines and composite multiple characters in order to hack the idiosyncrasies of the medium. In the words of the late Mike Nichols as recounted by Sorkin himself, “art isn’t about what happened.” While a historian’s obligation is to the objective truth, the storyteller’s is to the subjective.
Inaccuracy isn’t the biggest problem with Steve Jobs. It doesn’t matter that Sorkin made Jobs a billionaire nearly a decade before he actually was one. I’m not particularly bothered by the preposterous notion that NeXT was a “Steve Jobs revenge machine” less concerned with making educational workstations than with building a spec OS for an Apple that wouldn’t really hit the skids for a couple more election cycles. I don’t even really care that they put Michael Fassbender in the wrong outfit for the iMac launch (although that was probably the toughest pill to swallow). None of that is the issue. The problem with Steve Jobs is the fact that someone — most likely director Danny Boyle — mangled a beautiful and emotionally accurate screenplay beyond recognition.
About a year ago, I received an embargoed and highly unauthorized perusal copy of Sorkin’s February 2014 script draft from a friend in the entertainment industry. I read it in one sitting. And then I read it again. And a third time. It was that good.
At this point, Michael Fassbender (a mightily talented but distractingly miscast actor) was only one of several names under consideration. Christian Bale (who was literally born to play the role) was still in the mix, as were Bradley Cooper, Matt Damon, and Leonardo DiCaprio. But because no casting had been announced, I could watch the whole thing play out in my mind with the actual, historical people. And man, did it sing. The story, the structure, the language… everything echoed with a crackling energy and clarion authenticity, fudged facts be damned. That’s the great thing about Sorkin’s writing set against the backdrop of the tech sector: at the highest levels of the industry, some people really are as smart and quick and complex as Aaron Sorkin’s characters. It just works.
In this early, working version, Jobs comes to life not as a bully who takes sadistic pleasure in some preternatural ability to make others miserable, but rather a damaged and complicated guy who wields his intellect (and humor!) as a defense against emotional intimacy. It’s a layered, dimensional character with all the contrast and nuance of the real guy. Mercilessly silver-tongued at one moment, mesmerically charming at the next, he turns on dimes not out of some unhinged beholdenness to mood swings but rather out of strategic, calculated will. He’s a tactician, not a tyrant. Frank Underwood in lotus pose.
This is perhaps the central question of the movie: do constructive ends justify destructive means? Or, to put it as the trailer does, can a great man be a good man? While the final version may beg that question, the draft does it without obliterating the suspension of disbelief that Steve could ever attract the voluntary company of talented collaborators. If Boyle & Fassbender’s essay of the man is to be believed, one wonders why anyone in Steve’s life, personal or professional, would have bothered to hang around and subject themselves to the agony for more than about five minutes.
At the end of the day, the success of Sorkin’s early telling comes down to the fact that by its end, Steve is a fundamentally changed man. Just as the Mark Zuckerberg of The Social Network learns over the course of the story that professional determination can come at great personal cost, the Steve Jobs of Steve Jobs learns that it doesn’t have to. In that respect, it is a Hollywood ending. But it’s also a Shakespearean ending. And a Homeric one, too. After all, it’s not like the Hollywood ending was invented in Hollywood.
What read in this early version as joust-and-parry fencing matches between a guy trying to keep emotional vulnerability at bay and the people who just want him to open the hell up take shape in Boyle’s film as little more than talk show shouting matches, more Mascagni than Miller. (Daniel Pemberton’s overly romantic score does nothing to moderate this.) Fassbender’s Steve, which is a product of Boyle’s directorial vision, is unwaveringly cold from start to finish. In the actor’s defense, that’s kind of what the script calls for in all of the first and most of the second acts, but by the third act it’s just boring. Where Sorkin’s original third act is an emotionally taught but fundamentally warm and funny finale, Boyle’s comes off as an orgy of Riot Act reading trained squarely on a humorless asshole whom nobody likes. The protagonist doesn’t really change, and the whole film — while innovative in its narrative structure — ends up feeling a bit pointless.
Look, I like the messiness of neorealist cinema as much as the next guy, but that’s not an aesthetic particularly well-suited to the story of the real Steve Jobs, a story which is about nothing if not the value of learning from the lessons of the past. Moreover, judging from his body of work, that’s not really the kind of story Aaron Sorkin writes. And this is really the crux of the problem, in my view: that seems to be the kind of story Boyle is determined to tell. The direction just doesn’t serve the source.
So did Boyle make all the changes? Did Sorkin? Who knows. But whatever their origin, the final product feels like a square peg jammed into a round hole. I attribute this to three key departures from Sorkin’s original rendition of the third and final act, depicting the moments leading up to the 1998 launch of the iMac.
Caution: spoilers ahead.
In the first and second act of Sorkin’s script (and of Boyle’s movie), Jobs is obsessive about starting product launches on time. On five separate occasions over the course of 80 minutes of screen time, he makes it very clear that his companies — companies which deal in the very precise domain of computers — do not ever start product launches late. This little leitmotif forms a string breadcrumbs sewn by a master storyteller who’s setting himself up to make a big point in the end.
In the draft, the payoff is unmistakeable. When his daughter Lisa storms off in a fit of adolescent anger just minutes before the start of the launch, Steve goes chasing after her. When he catches up to her and she points out that he’s going to be late, not only does he shrug it off, he tells Lisa he won’t even consider starting until she’s let him read — in full — one of the essays she’s written for the Harvard Crimson. It’s a tender moment of reconciliation between a parent and child at swordpoints, but more importantly a key revelation about the shift in what Robert McKee might call the “value charge condition” of Steve’s attitude toward parenthood. It’s how we realize that Steve has learned his lesson: that professional success does not have to come at great personal cost. That he can be both great and good.
The problem? While Boyle retains the setup, he glosses over the payoff, excising most of Steve and Lisa’s exchange over the essay. This vital barometer of change for a guy who’s spent the last two hours hearing all about how he needs to change basically vanishes. Instead, in the film, Lisa gets little more than a terse half-apology from a still-stoic gargoyle who’s best shot at parental atonement seems to be a promise to replace his daughter’s clunky Walkman with something prettier (a coy allusion to the iPod that works in the draft but falls flat in the final cut). To say it loses something is an understatement.
The third act of the draft is also framed by a vaudevillian conceit concerning two identical sets of doors in the corridor behind the De Anza College auditorium. Kate Winslet’s Joanna Hoffman explains to Steve that one set leads to the stage and the other to an outside parking lot, the implication being that the latter will lock him out of the building. Naturally, in his haste to chase after Lisa and make his new priorities clear to both her and the audience, he marches straight out the wrong door. His reaction? Entirely unphased, single-mindedly focused on clearing the air with his daughter, further illuminating the turning over of a new leaf.
Beyond the practical character implications, this device largely dictates the tone of the finale. See, it’s funny. The first two acts, and the first part of the third act for that matter, are heavy to the point of being exhausting. The slapstick sensibility of the double door sequence serves to break the tension and propel the piece into the redemptive ending its been teeing up for since the first page. To fans of The West Wing and The Newsroom, it feels like Sorkin at his best. In fact, several other jokes have been removed from the final scene, including one particularly disarming and self-aware quip by Steve about the Bay Area being “strewn with the broken spirits of people who couldn’t handle [his] full attention”. Perhaps the door bit was cut due to concern it would feel derivative of a similar sequence in Birdman, but that doesn’t change the fact that the tonal momentum of the whole piece is compromised by the omission. As a result, the dénouement crumbles under its own weight and everyone leaves the theater bummed out.
Another thing about cut lines: while the phrase “killing your darlings” is all too familiar to the writers out there, sometimes certain lines are not only memorable, they’re crucial. Would The Godfather say as much about the character of Don Corleone, and so efficiently, without his promise to Johnny Fontane to ensure the nullification of a bad contract by making the other party “an offer he can’t refuse”? Of course not. It’s not just quotable, it’s functional. Similarly, there’s a line in Sorkin’s draft that even in spite of all the other departures would have said everything that needs to be said about the consummation of Steve’s change of heart … had it survived the cutting room. The line in questions comes in response to a jab from Lisa about the appearance of the iMac. She says:
“And you can talk about the Bauhaus movement and Braun and simplicity is sophistication and Issey Miyake and Bob Dylan all you want, but that thing looks like Judy Jetson’s Easy Bake Oven!”
Steve’s reply as she storms off?
“There is no way in the world that’s not my kid.”
For a movie that’s ostensibly about the relationship between a father and his daughter (a refrain Sorkin has repeatedly invoked in interviews), the moment where the title character’s full transition from paternity-denying cad to self-aware father (and human being capable of real vulnerability!) is crystalized for the audience would seem to be necessarily focal. Indeed, it was the line Walter Isaacson, the author of the Jobs biography from which the screenplay was adapted, zeroed in on as the essential one in emails leaked post-Sonygate. Unfortunately, it never made it to print, and Boyle’s film is lesser for it.
These aren’t the only significant changes to the script, they’re just the most problematic ones. Presumably at Boyle’s direction, two-way conversations between Jobs and his many foils turn into barked, one-way directives. Private conflicts (including a climactic third act confrontation with Woz) are relocated to crowded public forums, seemingly for shock-and-awe effect alone. An extra helping of the word “fuck” is heaped liberally upon the plate (because the 20 instances in the February draft didn’t quite get the job done), and the filmmakers’ “new and improved” Jobs goes so far as to ask Hoffman why they’ve never slept together. These and other such choices end up stripping Jobs of any sympathy, basically reducing him to a foul-mouthed pig and exhibitionistic emotional terrorist who’s just out for the blood of those who dare to stand up to him and the trembling fear of those who dare to look on. And unfortunately for the audience, the effect is that the film ends up missing the point of both Sorkin’s draft and Steve Jobs’ life and legacy.
Again, I don’t care to quibble about differences between the film and the real man’s personal history. That’s beside the point. Again, while the journalist has an obligation to the objective, the storyteller has one to the subjective. But in the draft I read a year ago and have reread several times since, Aaron Sorkin nails what I believe to be the subjective truth of Steve’s life: that there is tremendous virtue to be found in allowing oneself to be tempered and wisened by failure, both in work and and in life. Unfortunately for us, that truth never made it to the screen. Who’s to blame for that? You’d have to ask Aaron Sorkin. But what I can tell you is that the Steve Jobs I saw is not, in fact, about Steve Jobs… and that’s an unnecessary shame.
Josiah Austin Gulden is a designer and writer living in Minneapolis. If you enjoyed this post, please recommend it and follow him on Medium and Twitter (@jgulden) to stay aprised of future writings.