Aaron Sorkin and the Technological Arts

I think I finally have figured out Aaron Sorkin. He had eluded me.

I remember liking The West Wing — so much so that I don’t dare watch it again for fear that, knowing what I know now, I might discover that Sorkin’s masterpiece was really just another soap opera with sermons. I liked Sports Night, at least for its effort. I was willing to forgive Studio 60.

But I despise what Sorkin did to the truth and to Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network and what he does now to Steve Jobs in his latest: demonizing them both. And I could not bear what he did for cable news in The Newsroom: worshiping it.

This week, watching Steve Jobs and listening to Sorkin as he was interviewed by The Verge’s Nilay Patel at a screening, I think I finally got Sorkin.

He’s jealous.

Sorkin admires those who change the world. In The West Wing, he imagined and brought to life the ideal, the impossible President that America could not — and God knows still cannot — produce on its own. He seduced us all to admire and adore Josiah Bartlet: Sorkin as kingmaker. In The Newsroom, Sorkin created people who would have changed the world with their high-minded journalism (if only they had not been such horribly flawed, misogynistic, pompous, wordy, preening, horny shitheads and disgusting sell-outs).

But regarding his subjects from the Other Coast, the Lesser Coast, I believe I can hear Sorkin’s inner dialogue:

You just make toys, boys. Zuck: You get people laid because you couldn’t get laid yourself. Never mind that you had a girlfriend I chose to ignore. I decided you didn’t deserve one. That is my power. I am filmmaker. And as for you Steve: I had your daughter say it, but I believe it: Your iMac looked like a fucking Easy-Bake Oven. Your biggest invention, your only real invention was — as your technology tribe might say — Walkman 2.0. Toys, nothing but toys.

In Steve Jobs, Sorkin gives us a silicon opera, a telco novella, daring us to watch as he imagines and intrudes on horribly uncomfortable moments of his protagonist’s life: being a heartless cad to his daughter, to his every employee, and to his Rainman (Sorkin’s word), Woz. In Sorkin’s eye, Jobs is all but irredeemable. It makes for a most uncomfortable two hours, like being stuck in an elevator with the meanest, nastiest feuding family you know. Or at a board meeting of a bad company.

Again, I hear Sorkin’s voice:

Zuck and Steve, you two don’t even try to be charming. You don’t understand the obligation of celebrity. I know stars. Hell, I make stars. Stars seduce the public. So do my characters. Didn’t you love my President? But you two: You don’t seem to give a damn about earning anyone’s love. Zuck: You are just a weird, flat nerd. Steve: You were a nasty SOB. How the hell can people love you when you don’t try to be loved?

In his conversation with Patel, Sorkin said he was “astonished at the way Steve Jobs was eulogized.” Sorkin said he could not understand how people loved not just the things he made but Jobs himself. He thus could not understand the impact of the technology itself in people’s lives. Sorkin said making the movie is his way of catching up. Or perhaps, better put, it was his way of getting even.

Now, of course, it’s not fair of me to psychoanalyze Sorkin — just as it isn’t fair of him to psychoanalyze Zuckerberg and Jobs. But now I understand why he does it. It’s fun. Bullshit, but fun.

Yet I have to give Sorkin this: Somewhere down in his gut, though he might not want to admit it, he understands that both Zuckerberg and Jobs are artists. For that is the context that wraps around his anger about them. That is where he attacks them. That is what makes him so sputteringly jealous.

What gives you two the right to change people’s lives? Who chose you? Who made you? You are just technicians. I am the artist. Artists change people’s lives. You geeks don’t make art. You make gadgets and gimmickry. Yet people treat you as artists. They give you adulation and fortunes and credit and power. WTF?

Sorkin believes he works on a higher plane. He looks down on both technologists and journalists. When Patel dared challenge Sorkin about his disregard for the facts — pesky, fucking facts — in Steve Jobs, Sorkin the auteur — in his actual and not my imagined voice — responded:

“How do I reconcile that with facts? There is a difference between journalism and what I do…. The difference between journalism and what we do is the difference between a photograph and a painting. What we do is painting. Those facts are not as important….” As important as what Sorkin wants to say.

Sorkin also wants to believe filmmaking is a higher form by far than what Zuckerberg and Jobs do. But his films about them are his admission that he is wrong, whether he could bear to say that or not. Sorkin doesn’t change the world as his subjects do. Sorkin works in a lesser art — which he uses, nonetheless, to tear these boys down to size, to assassinate their characters.

Sorkin is Salieri to their Mozart. They are greater artists than he will ever be. They and their impact will be remembered for generations — and not because of Sorkin’s films about them, which will be soon forgotten. They have changed the world more than Sorkin or his beloved, imaginary President or journalists could ever hope to. Yet Sorkin is doomed to make movies about these damned, fucking geeks.


  • Andreas Ekström

    Yes, but! The thing is: Sorkin is not to be held responsible for what he did with “the truth” on Zuckerberg. Or anything else, for that matter. And why is that? Because he is a fiction writer. He is free to do whatever the heck he wants with history as long as he calls it fiction. Which he does. The obsession with “true” and “false” in a world of literature and movies, meant to be nothing but fiction, leads us to less of an understanding for what cultural expressions really are. Sorkin is a fiction writer, looking for a great story. He will use parts of reality to create fiction. That “contract” with the viewer/reader/reciever/consumer is as old as telling stories.

    • mgabrys

      So the next bio-pic on Obama being a Muslim terrorist born in Kenya would be just dandy because – hey you know – fictional is a-ok.

      • Bingo, mgabrys.

      • Gabriel

        Fictional within reason. Like it or not, the depictions of Zuckerberg and Jobs in Sorkin’s films are not a million miles away from their real-life counterparts, although obviously he took certain liberties with the truth.

        A depiction of Obama in the manner you suggested would be unreasonable and ridiculous, however, suggesting that two titans of technological creation were/are flawed individuals is hardly of the same calibre.

        • mgabrys

          Soooo Jobs doesn’t have more than 1 child was never married, and Zuckerberg made Facebook to impress girls (while dating his present wife). Ya that makes total fucking sense. Real close to the truth there. Like from Pluto and back.

        • Gabriel

          Do you really consider those omissions to be equivalent to depicting the President of the United States of America as a Muslim terrorist?

    • Sorkin could very easily have created an entirely fictional world, based on a company like Apple Computer, and a person like Steve Jobs. But he didn’t, he wrote a screenplay based on a non-fiction book and presents it as if it is capturing the “real” Steve Jobs. He pretends that it has some higher truth about the real life person, but in fact it he was simply too lazy to get his facts straight. There are plenty of wonderful films that, while occasionally making adjustments to compress or clarify reality, present an accurate picture of the real life person.

      The is old style Hollywood laziness, the screenwriter can’t be bothered to do real research. But there was no reason to rush to get this film made. Sorkin is going against a growing trend where audiences expect more effort in these adaptions to present something close to reality.

      • Chucky DeHammar

        (I’m in catch-up after seeing Mr Jarvis quite rightly tear the BBC a new one over some alleged ‘hack’ at Facebook. Well done sir!)

        I can see a point to having some slight blurring for ‘dramatic licence’ and for a filmmaker to deliberately explore hidden or unknown sides to a famous person. But to stampede over established hard points of the character of someone such as Jobs – and I am far from being a major fan of his – smacks of at best sheer ignorance, and at worst contempt for the audience.

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  • Gabriel

    I cannot completely vouch for “Steve Jobs”, as I have yet to see it, but you are certainly underestimating the appreciation felt for “The Social Network”. It is widely considered a modern masterpiece in cinema, with note-perfect performances, direction, writing, scoring etc.

    It will certainly not be “soon forgotten”, as you suggest. Not in the minds of critics, not in the minds of film-goers, and certainly not in the minds of the founders of Facebook (though I suspect that they would like to).

  • I read and enjoyed Kovach and Rosentiel’s “Elements of Journalism”. Its identification of the fundamentals of such an important activity impressed me. So when I watched The Newsroom, I was convinced that Sorkin must have read the book too; he used a lot of it in the first series. The vehicle he employed to create a dramatic context may well have been a mis-representation of industry. However, if you get past that I think he managed to expose issues both confronted and ignored by the monitor of power that has itself become power. This is a good thing, and maybe because of it some people will get a more realistic view of the news business.

    I am minded of Emile Zola’s definition of art: a corner of reality viewed through a temperament. Sorkin writes ripping yarns, and I thought The Newsroom made some of the Committee of Concerned Journalists’ arguments quite engagingly at times. Perhaps the story could have been more coherent with the rules of the real world industry.