I have no qualms in saying that, in high school, the discovery of Aaron Sorkin’s writing completely changed the way I thought about how people could talk in fiction. Here were characters that spoke with purpose in every line, both illuminating their inner thought process and highlighting the themes of the work. (If you doubt its influence, just read the play I wrote my senior year that falls somewhere between a love letter to and ripoff of Sorkin.)
The more I rewatch “The Social Network,” however, the more I realize that the heft of the content is the real star of that script. The delivery in “Sorkinese” – as many have come to call it – serves to enhance, not replace, that treasure trove of insights into class, status and social structure in contemporary America. The hyperexpressive dialogue feels justified practically by the bulk of commentary that the characters must convey – and, remarkably, tomes are still left unsaid.
Sorkin’s latest script, “Steve Jobs” (adapted from Walter Isaacson’s authorized biography of the same name), narrows its focus from the revolutionizing of society to a man with the vision to spark such revolutions. As the man whose inventions shook up telephones, personal computing, animation, publishing and music, Jobs feels like a natural subject for Sorkin given his obsession with grandiloquent geniuses. Even his work on the script for 2011’s “Moneyball,” which praised the empirically driven philosophy of Oakland Athletics manager Billy Beane, evinces his fascination with people who innovate in spite of steep institutional pressure to maintain an inefficient status quo.
Yet, at the same time, choosing Jobs as someone to speak Sorkinese fluently smells a bit like a man trying to cast God in his own image – and not the other way around. The stylized dialogue flies rapidly in “Steve Jobs,” which is not entirely dissimilar from “The Social Network.” But here, the metaphors and arcane cultural references are delivered in a continual walk-and-talk, not in such visibly formal settings.
Sorkin chooses to stage his drama within the confines of a backstage drama (as opposed to the courtroom drama of Zuckerberg’s saga), a style which generally portrays characters with their guards down and speaking with their guards down. Jobs was undoubtedly smart enough to talk as Fassbender’s portrayal of him does, though it feels somewhat stilted and artificial.
Even as words leave little of Jobs’ vibrant mind to the imagination, Fassbender still engages the mind. Over three acts spanning three different product launches in 1984, 1988 and 1998, he burrows past the iconography and gets inside the psychology of the man. Jobs could easily have collapsed into the chief irony powering the script – that such an impersonal man obsesses over creating personal products (just like how an anti-social man revolutionized social relations).
Fassbender’s take is more than mere ruthlessness and misanthropy, though many of the people with whom he repeatedly butts heads might say otherwise. He effortlessly parses the barbs and jabs Sorkin gives him, be they directed at his ex-girlfriend Chrisann (Katherine Waterston), who begs for Jobs’ financial support to raise the daughter he denies, or Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), who makes a simple request to receive some recognition for his embattled team.
As Wozniak points out, Jobs is neither an engineer nor a designer, so his public stature makes little sense. Sorkin finds the reason why by adjusting our view – he’s not a capitalist or an inventor but rather an artist. Jobs has more in common with the protagonists of “Whiplash” or “Black Swan” than he does those in “The Imitation Game” or “The Theory of Everything.” He recognizes his human weakness and seeks to create works that can redeem and outlast him.
Stemming from this novel view of Jobs, the film’s most captivating conversations take place between Jobs and those qualified to challenge him on the products he ushers into the marketplace. Things get contentious with designer Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg), who raises issues with the practicality of Jobs’ lofty launches, as well as Apple CEO John Scully (Jeff Daniels), a man hard-pressed to reconcile the founder’s forward thinking with the tough logic of the marketplace.
But nowhere is “Steve Jobs” more emotionally resonant than the scenes where Kate Winslet’s Joanna Hoffman holds her own against Jobs. As the head of marketing and Jobs’ “work wife,” she has the unique perspective of knowing both the product and the man inside and out. Her forceful, impassioned pleas for sanity and mediation between all parties are among the few lines that command silence and reflection in the film. And with the backing of director Danny Boyle, practically incorrigible in his optimism, Hoffman stands tall. B+ /