In “The ‘Steve Jobs’ Con” (NYT 8/13), Joe Nocera does an excellent job of revealing the discrepancies between the Jobs whose career he followed closely and the mostly fictional character created for the movie. As an unwitting audience member who knew much less than Nocera, I too felt that the fast-talking, stubborn and abrasive character was a familiar stereotype found in other Sorkin films and tv shows and therefore, an un-inflected portrayal of this particular man.
Against a stylized framework of showing Jobs at three of his famous product launchings, we are meant to glean the essence of his character through his relationships with key figures in his professional and personal life. There is the rejected, neurotic former girlfriend, mother of Lisa, the “illegitimate” and unacknowledged daughter. Both are mostly stick figures who reappear to keep asking for money and recognition. There are the three male colleagues who have their grievances of varying legitimacy. And there is Joanna Hoffman, the maternal work-wife who understands everything about the business as well as the boss’ major character flaws. As played by Kate Winslet with an irrelevant Polish twang (competing with Meryl Streep’s superior Sophie), she is perpetually anxious, devoted and insightful, and if we are believe the screenplay, the one most responsible for forcing Jobs to reconsider his hurtful and intractable behavior towards Lisa. As Nocera points out, we never learn that this girl actually lived with Jobs throughout her high school years. A bigger surprise that is totally excluded from the film is that Jobs was married with three other children by this time in the film. Presented as a loner who has difficulty getting along with everyone, the truth of that last piece of information is crucial to our understanding of what appears to be a thaw in his icy intransigence and far more logical as an explanation for his softening temperament. Similarly, Kate Winslet’s character, presented as a woman with a single-minded purpose of taking care of Steve Jobs, was also married with a family of her own.
By giving this movie the eponymous title he chose, Sorkin was demanding that we see this as an honest portrayal - if not of Jobs’ whole life - then at least a portion of it. He could have given himself infinite artistic license with a different title or by adding that omnipresent phrase “inspired by true events.” This is not nit-picking since once credibility disappears, one questions other aspects of the character seen on screen. There is a moment of dialogue that gets a laugh in which Jobs cautions Joanna to stop behaving like Yentl and she subsequently responds that she hopes he doesn’t really think that she’s from a 19th century shtetl. This frame of reference seems more appropriate for a New York Seinfeld character than for the man raised in California by Catholics and the biological son of a Syrian father. In other words, we sense that it’s jarringly inauthentic and that suspension of disbelief interferes with our immersion into these people’s lives. “Steve Jobs” remains a cool movie that keeps its sketchy character’s distance from the audience. In that respect, it might have functioned better as a play.
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