Word broke today that Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing, A Few Good Men, The Social Network) is on the shortlist of those Sony is looking at to write the biopic of Steve Jobs. Surely, it could be like most of Sorkin’s screenplays often are a massive hit. To be kind, there’s just a hint of unfortunate awkwardness that could come into play with Aaron Sorkin at the helm. To be fair: Sorkin’s just not the right guy for this.
Why? A quick look at Sorkin’s most famous characters shows a writer in love with intellectual rogues (such as the guy who sold the film rights to A Few Good Men when he was 27). For example:
- Every protagonist on The West Wing—whether they’re Harvard grads or former Hollywood flacks who found themselves in a White House job—are always winning an argument from the underdog positioning. Their methods are unorthodox, and when they lose, it’s because the world doesn’t rise to their brilliance.
- The titular Charlie Wilson of Charlie Wilson’s War, who—strippers in bathtubs aside—transcends political red tape to bring American guns to Afghanistan’s freedom fighters. His methods are unorthodox, and when America fails to follow up after the Russians are exiled, it’s because the government doesn’t understand the situation at hand. He’s punished for doing the right thing.
- In A Few Good Men, Tom Cruise is an unorthodox military attorney who pushes court-marshal protocol to the brink. When certain characters don’t receive a just outcome, the system has doomed them, and they’re punished for following orders.
- Most recently, in Moneyball, Oakland A’s manager Billy Beane uses sabermetrics to put together an squad of baseball players who appear doomed to fail but succeed beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. His methods are unorthodox. Whenever Beane is defeated, it’s Major League Baseball’s fault (too much money elsewhere). He’s punished for not playing the way everyone else plays.
- In his play about the invention of television, The Farnsworth Invention, a brilliant (unorthodox) innovator is undercut by people who exploit the moral high ground. The system defeats his claim to the invention of television, because he’s a good guy.
- In the teleplay for his forthcoming television drama centered around a Keith Olbermann-like character—More as This Story Develops—a newsman too brilliant for many people to work, a man who fights The Good Fight, is publicly reviled for his volatile temperament by underlings while quietly praised for his hidden qualities of compassion (we’ve read it in two drafts, it’s pretty great).
There’s one exception to this rule:
- In The Social Network, a brilliant rogue who invents the ultimate friend-connecting machine finds himself more often than not an ostensibly misunderstood genius, yet, is a loathsome creature whose failure to meaningfully interact with a world outside of the internet makes him a creep.
Sorkin generally portrays Zuckerberg’s invention as the film’s ultimate antagonist: this is why this guy is awful, it’s why the people around him are alienated and fighting, and the biggest fight Zuckerberg will ever have won’t be so much with his own nature as with his invention. It was pretty great, except: It prominently displayed a recurring theme of Sorkin’s, which is an anti-technology (and especially: anti-internet bias). Previously:
Sorkin’s hatred of bloggers stems from an incident during his West Wing days, when he took to a Television Without Pity message board to defend himself against criticism, and was given a harsh shellacking on the board and in the press for doing so. He channeled this into a particularly wonderful episode of The West Wing. Since then, he’s taken every chance he can to sideswipe these pesky bloggers who blog things (it’s often argued that he wrote an entire film about his distaste for the democratizing nature of the internet, let alone the press he did for it), forgetting the fact that he still often takes to those same blogs to communicate with the hoi polloi whenever it’s called for.
That post went up after an interview with the New York Times’ David Carr, in which Sorkin snidely undermines a technology-savvy Times reporter. You know who else hated bloggers?
Steve “What Have You Done That’s So Great?” Jobs. Who is—in so many ways—a perfect Aaron Sorkin character:
- College dropout (a rebel).
- Inspired by acid (a miscreant; Sorkin, by the way, was once arrested for possession of psychedelic mushrooms and used to write The West Wing surrounded by potted plants, high on crack).
- Early computers were tossed aside as impractical alternatives to PCs (a heretic to conformity).
- Kicked out of his own company at one point (an outcast).
- Criticisms came from a uniform “system” unwilling to change (an underdog).
- Has a Christ-like rise to prominence in the third act (a genius).
Unfortunately, Steve Jobs was also:
- A resentful, absentee father.
- Psychotically competitive.
- Anti-organized labor, and not much of a proponent of the hoi polloi.
- Censorship-happy (he wanted to give the world “freedom from porn” and obsessively hunted down press leaks).
- An enabler of humanity-cracking work conditions.
- A bully.
All of these qualities have been portrayed as villainous at one point or another in Sorkin’s work (even the daddy-issues, which both the president and one of his advisers have in The West Wing). And yet: genius is almost always the driving quality of a misunderstood protagonist in all but one of Sorkin’s screenplays, The Social Network, where the invention is a manifestation of the great Sorkin villain: the tyranny of the masses. Jobs built something that enabled the masses, but not without being the complex—and some would argue, not-so-saintly—man we’re continuing to learn he was.
In Sorkin’s version of this story, which character do you think we’ll meet, or at the very least, how many shades of him will we get to know?
End of the day, the book’s always better than the movie. But more people see the film.
Steve Jobs might be the perfect Aaron Sorkin character. But, given his track record, he might not be given the most honest, fufilling treatment so much as the most entertaining one, or at least the one Sorkin relates to the most.
I’m obviously a Sorkin fan. If he does get the gig, here’s hoping I’m proven wrong.
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