Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

“What Do You Think?”

I haven’t seen the new Boyle-Sorkin “Steve Jobs” film, but I’d like to, if for no other reason than Aaron Sorkin’s masterful sense of dialogue (and Jeff Daniels playing John Sculley). But the two previous films that tried to tell Jobs’ story have painted him in a rather negative light, as though he were a sanctimonious, petulant dictator. Based on some of the initial reviews I’ve read, this one isn’t much different. Rick Tetzeli:

The film’s title character is a one-trick pony, a grandstanding egotist who gets great work out of people by charming them or berating them. Humans stand in the way of his unchanging genius, at least until that unconvincing reunion with Lisa at the end. It’s an old and unsophisticated view that’s been trotted out since the early days of Apple.

What is true is that Jobs did some really crappy things in the earlier parts of his career: he didn’t give Woz the financial bonus on the Atari Breakout board, and he denied paternity of Lisa, his first daughter, among other notable events. But that doesn’t reflect the multifaceted nature of that time — he did great things in this time in his life alongside the shitty things — nor does it reflect the three decades of his career that came afterward.

Jobs got married and had three more kids after leaving Apple. He and his wife hosted his first daughter, Lisa Brennan, at their home for several years. To project the worst things he did onto the remainder of his career is a narrative that is regularly told, but is not accurate.

Hence this recollection, from Arno Gourdol (via Michael Tsai):

Steve had many talents. He was a gifted communicator, a deep intellect, often the smartest guy in the room, a visionary that could see better than anyone else what the future could be. Above all Steve was a leader that could inspire creative teams to do the best work of their lives. That was his greatest creation.

“What do you think?”

Four simple words that convey so much: I care about what you think, I want to listen to you, I respect you, I trust you.

I never worked for Steve; I have never worked at Apple. But I have worked for people who are very demanding, and for those who are not. The best work I’ve ever produced and the most satisfaction I’ve ever felt have come from times when my creative abilities were pushed, and when my patience was running thin. That isn’t to say that a high degree of stress and pressure should be exerted regularly on employees, but that the expectations of quality are known and pushed.

The portrait of Steve Jobs that is painted these days is that he was a jerk once and a jerk always. But the stories I’ve heard from people who know best are more inclined to say that he was a demanding but, ultimately, fair boss.

The Sorkin approach to a biopic is one in which the main characters – first, Zuckerberg; now, Jobs — are fictional entities. They are merely characters. Both “The Social Network” and “Steve Jobs” play up the histrionics of their protagonists and use history as a loose guide, but not as the rule. This becomes controversial when the subject matter is this fresh, and one of the subjects happens to still be alive.

Rick Tetzeli, in an article for Fast Company:

[The] last scene hinges on an imagined reconciliation with Lisa [Brennan], and depends on an astounding fiction of omission: The entire scene takes place as if Jobs is unmarried, has no kids, and hasn’t changed at all as a result. In fact, Jobs married Laurene Powell in 1991. They had three children, Reed (1991), Erin (1995), and Eve (1998). And Lisa lived with Steve and Laurene from 1992 to 1996.

The way to approach “Steve Jobs”, then, is not as a work of history or documentary; I intend to view it as a work of cinema and of fiction, and I think it will be worth watching — I love Sorkinese. But separating truth from fiction is a challenge when the narrative around Jobs’ life is still being written and changed constantly, especially by those with a vested interest in specific versions. Above all, it does feel — as Tim Cook and Jony Ive have said — opportunistic:

On Sept. 28, 2011, Sony Entertainment CEO Michael Lynton left his Culver City office and made the four-and-a half-mile trek to Century City, ready to open his wallet.

Lynton, along with producer Mark Gordon (Saving Private Ryan), was being given a unique opportunity to read one of the most anticipated manuscripts in publishing history: Walter Isaacson’s biography Steve Jobs.

The brilliant but mercurial founder of Apple Inc. was on his deathbed — he would die days later, on Oct. 5 — and Simon & Schuster was rushing the book into stores, which meant the publisher did not want it read widely in advance of its Oct. 24 release: Secrecy was crucial to giving Steve Jobs the type of splash that would propel it to sales of more than 379,000 copies during its first week alone. And so Lynton and Gordon closeted themselves for hours in separate offices at ICM Partners, Isaacson’s agency, and waded through the 656-page tome.

By day’s end, both men were confident this was a movie …

After reading this, I’d be surprised if these executives would be sensitive to the subject of any biopic.