The title of episode 42 of Hypercritical, a weekly technology podcast with John Siracusa and Dan Benjamin, refers directly to Walter Isaacson, the author of the widely acclaimed and seminal biography of Steve Jobs. Plainly, it is called “The Wrong Guy.” John Gruber summarized the 75 minute takedown best:
…his multi-faceted critique of the book is simply devastating. I went into this podcast knowing that I thought the book was flawed, knowing that Siracusa did too, and expecting to be nodding my head in agreement with him throughout the show. But it’s worse than that. Isaacson blew it, a one-time opportunity forever squandered. Jobs picked the wrong guy.
Siracusa’s overarching complaint is that Isaacson had little understanding of the technology industry as a whole, thus he not only botched little details of the story of Jobs’s life, but missed the main point of what made Jobs so different from his contemporaries. He notes that much of the history in the Isaacson’s book has appeared elsewhere in greater detail with more stirring narratives. Unforgivably, in Siracusa’s view, he wasted the unprecedented access to Jobs by asking the wrong questions because he didn’t grasp the enormity of Jobs’s accomplishments.
Earlier this week it was announced that Aaron Sorkin will be writing the film adaptation of Isaacson’s book, which is poised to become the definitive Steve Jobs biopic.1 Based on his past work, I believe Sorkin is the right guy.
Since his return to the big screen with Charlie Wilson’s War in 2007, Sorkin has worked exclusively on narrative films based on true histories. In fact, his other works are so closely linked to actual, larger than life entities (the presidency, the military, late night broadcast television) that one could argue his universe is one entirely built upon real people and events.2
Sorkin is known for his pin-sharp dialogue and staple “walk-and-talk” circular conversations, but I don’t think that’s what makes him such a sought after writer. The main theme through most of his work is genius and expertise. What makes people strive to be the best? What makes them better at what they do than someone else? He is drawn toward stories that explore unchecked power and those who are smart enough to subvert the rules of the game, whatever the game may be, to their own needs.
Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Gust Avrakotos in Charlie Wilson’s War is ingenious enough that he is capable of stoking a secret war below the radar of the American people. Jonah Hill’s Peter Brand in Moneyball has the ability to see the game of baseball on a plane that no one else in the profession was ready to rise to, and Brad Pitt’s Billy Beane was able to follow his gut well enough to push the revolutionary system through.
And, of course, Jesse Eisenberg’s Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network had the foresight to view social networking not as a product to simply be monetized like his foil, Andrew Garfield’s Eduardo Saverin, did, but as a revolutionary new class of Web site that could conceivably change the way people use the Internet. He compares Facebook to fashion: neither will ever be “finished.”
Sorkin may not always get the facts right, but he is able to tell emotionally compelling stories that bring us closer to understanding what makes successful people tick. Take this monologue from Sam Donovan, the rough around the edges “ratings guy” brought in to help the struggling show at the center of Sports Night, played by William H. Macy. While walking a group of executives around the show’s set, he tells a story of Cliff Gardner, brother-in-law to the inventor of television Philo Farnsworth3, who taught himself to blow glass in order to make tubes for Philo’s invention.
I’ve looked over the notes you’ve been giving over the last year or so, and I have to say they exhibit an almost total lack of understanding of how to get the best from talented people…. You said before that for whatever reason, I seem to be able to exert some authority around here. I assure you it’s not ‘cause they like me. It’s ‘cause they knew two minutes after I walked in the door I’m someone who knows how to do something. I can help. I can make glass tubes.
Speeches like that one are littered throughout Sorkin’s work. There is John Henry’s (Arliss Howard) “bat shit crazy” one in Moneyball and Andrew Shepherd’s (Michael Douglas) “I am the President” diatribe in The American President. With great power, for Sorkin, comes great elocution. These characters are able to articulate what’s hiding in their souls better than their real-world counterparts ever could.
I’ve never been too fond of biopics in general. Lives rarely have a narrative arc that can fit within the time constraints of a feature film, and so most films that chronicle a life do so to the detriment of telling a decent story. Instead they try to cram in the milestones that their subject will be remembered for. Walter Isaacson’s biography of Jobs suffers from this too, trying to cover the biggest events of his life at the expense of exploring what it is that made him Steve Jobs.
Aaron Sorkin, on the other hand, has made a career out of trying to understand what makes extraordinary people extraordinary. We will probably never fully understand how Steve Jobs turned out to be the innovator he was, but I’ll bet Sorkin is more interested in his inner machinations than getting the specifics of his experiences on screen. That’s what makes him the right guy to pen this film.
Another film with Ashton Kutcher is currently being shot and there is, of course, the 1999 made-for-TV film Pirates of Silicon Valley which follows Jobs’s trajectory from Apple’s founding to his reinstatement as CEO in 1997. ↩︎
The one exception to this rule in his oeuvre is the 1993 Harold Becker-directed Malice. ↩︎
A topic Sorkin later revisits with the Broadway play The Farnsworth Invention. ↩︎