The Varieties of Productive Experience
The latest Steve Jobs movie, imaginatively titled Steve Jobs, has flopped at the box office, and people are asking what went wrong. How could such an iconic subject—and in this case the word "iconic" is used correctly, which almost never happens—not draw the interest of audiences?
I went and saw the film, and I don't think it's necessarily the case that audiences aren't interested in a movie about Steve Jobs. I was certainly interested in a movie about Steve Jobs. I just wish Aaron Sorkin had written one.
Joe Nocera, who covered Jobs and Apple back in the day, ticks down a list of the ways the movie version of Jobs has nothing to do with the real one. It's not just that they didn't get his style. (Michael Fassbender is a fine actor who is doing his best, but he is asked to spend most of his time yelling at people, and he captures none of the boyish enthusiasm that made Jobs so charming.) It's the fact that they changed or skipped over a whole range of important facts about what Jobs actually did. Nocera quotes a great response from novelist Tom Mallon: "If the real Steve Jobs is interesting enough to make a movie about, why go and create another character that the filmmakers presumably find more interesting?" This sums up why 80% of movies "based on a true story" go wrong, and why 100% of Aaron Sorkin movies based on a true story go wrong.
Praise for Sorkin's script even as a work of pure fiction is overblown. He presents the story in three acts, each taking place in the roughly 40 minutes before Jobs goes on stage to announce the launch of a major new product (the Macintosh, NeXT, and the iMac), and each time he is interrupted by the same six recurring characters from his personal and professional life. The whole set-up is artificial and stagey. Literally stagey—it's the sort of thing we would accept in stage play, where we are willing to suspend disbelief and accept the artifice because we know the limitations of the medium. But this isn't a stage play, so it's just painful evidence of a Writer on Board.
And when you've got a Writer on Board, you've got a guy pushing an agenda. Sorkin's insistent theme is summed up in a line I'm pretty certain Jobs never spoke, but which Sorkin writes into his mouth: "God sent his only son on a suicide mission, but we all love him because he made trees." So Jobs is like God in this analogy. He's kind of a big jerk, but he gets away with it because he makes stuff we like.
This theme—that great men are obsessive jerks—is hackneyed beyond belief. It's been done for this guy:
And this guy:
And this guy (NSFW):
And this guy:
And so on.
Those last two, you might have noticed, are also Aaron Sorkin scripts. Somehow, no matter whom he takes as his real-life subject matter, Sorkin always gives us a story about how successful, high-achieving people are real jerks. Or maybe, if you read between the lines, the movies are about how it's OK to be a jerk so long as you're successful. In other news, it has often been said that every Aaron Sorkin production is really about Aaron Sorkin. Draw your own conclusions from that.
So perhaps the actual significance of the Steve Jobs flop is that people are tired of Aaron Sorkin.
I hope so, because we could actually use more movies about the titans of industry.
I wrote recently about how the The Martian was panned by some reviewers who regarded scientific and technological problem solving as uninteresting, unless you could throw in a few plot points about hidden secrets and deep, dark psychological problems. If you asked those people to make a movie about one of the central figures in the technological revolution of the past forty years, Steve Jobs is the movie they would make. The basic thought process behind it is: "Blah, blah, blah, boring stuff about RAM and processors and operating systems—let's skip forward to the part where he's mean to his ex-girlfriend!"
Meanwhile, The Martian has grossed approximately 40 times as much as Steve Jobs.
That's because Sorkin missed the really interesting story, even though it was right there under his nose. Very late in the film, buried in a flashback, we hear a shortened version of a famous speech Jobs used to give in the 1980s about how the personal computer is a bicycle for the mind.
Jobs then talks about the enormous impact of putting this kind of tool in the hands of everyone, which is the whole idea behind the personal computer.
Well, that sounds like a really interesting story. Maybe somebody should make a movie about it sometime.
Take any random anecdote from this technological revolution, such as this one from Malcolm Gladwell's dissection of the myth (casually repeated in Sorkin's script) that Apple stole its user interface from Xerox.
After Jobs returned from PARC, he met with a man named Dean Hovey, who was one of the founders of the industrial-design firm that would become known as IDEO. “Jobs went to Xerox PARC on a Wednesday or a Thursday, and I saw him on the Friday afternoon,” Hovey recalled. “I had a series of ideas that I wanted to bounce off him, and I barely got two words out of my mouth when he said, ‘No, no, no, you’ve got to do a mouse.’ I was, like, ‘What’s a mouse?’ I didn’t have a clue. So he explains it, and he says, ‘You know, [the Xerox mouse] is a mouse that cost three hundred dollars to build and it breaks within two weeks. Here’s your design spec: Our mouse needs to be manufacturable for less than fifteen bucks. It needs to not fail for a couple of years, and I want to be able to use it on Formica and my bluejeans.’ From that meeting, I went to Walgreens, which is still there, at the corner of Grant and El Camino in Mountain View, and I wandered around and bought all the underarm deodorants that I could find, because they had that ball in them. I bought a butter dish. That was the beginnings of the mouse.”
I spoke with Hovey in a ramshackle building in downtown Palo Alto, where his firm had started out. He had asked the current tenant if he could borrow his old office for the morning, just for the fun of telling the story of the Apple mouse in the place where it was invented. The room was the size of someone’s bedroom. It looked as if it had last been painted in the Coolidge Administration.... “Our first machine shop was literally out on the roof,” he said, pointing out the window to a little narrow strip of rooftop, covered in green outdoor carpeting. “We didn’t tell the planning commission. We went and got that clear corrugated stuff and put it across the top for a roof. We got out through the window.”
This story is way more interesting than Sorkin's imagined version of what Jobs might have said to his daughter when she was nine.
Nitin Nohria, the dean of Harvard Business School, recently recalled visiting the historian Doris Kearns Goodwin and finding that her library contains 500 different biographies of Abraham Lincoln. He wishes we were paying "as much attention to the history being made by business leaders."
The reason he gives is that he thinks it might improve the behavior of CEOs if they thought they would be judged by history. I think it's more important for us. Discovering the dramatic stories of great achievements in technology and business might give us a little more understanding of where all the material abundance we enjoy actually comes from and a greater appreciation for the effort and drive required to create new ideas, make difficult choices, and turn it all into a reality.
We might even find that this is an exciting story.