Citizen Steve: Aaron Sorkin’s Wellesian Perspective on the Life of Steve Jobs

Knowledge@Wharton’s technology and media editor, Kendall Whitehouse, explores how the movie Steve Jobs echoes some of the themes and structure of another film about a larger-than-life figure, Citizen Kane. Spoiler alert: Readers unfamiliar with both films should note that the commentary includes a few details about the conclusion of each movie. Currently in limited release, Steve Jobs expands to wide release in U.S. theaters on October 23.

In the “News on the March” pseudo-documentary at the beginning of Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane, the film’s titular figure is characterized as “a Communist” by a Wall Street banker and “a Fascist” by a protesting worker. “All of these years he covered, many of these he was,” reads the faux documentary’s title card. The same epigram could also characterize the version of Steven P. Jobs crafted by screenwriter Aaron Sorkin and director Danny Boyle in their film, Steve Jobs.

Citizen Kane and Steve Jobs have a great deal in common in both their subject and their approach to portraying the life of a towering individual. Like Citizen Kane, Steve Jobs is a parable about the darkness that often accompanies greatness and the emotional cost of great achievement. Twitter 

Steve Jobs is the third biography of the Apple co-founder released in as many years. Alex Gibney’s Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine (2015) is a documentary and Jobs (2013) by director Joshua Michael Stern and writer Matt Whiteley (and starring Ashton Kutcher) is a conventional chronologically arranged biopic. Sorkin and Boyle have crafted something different. As Welles does in Citizen Kane, Sorkin and Boyle use a biographical tale not merely to portray the life of an individual, but to explore the emotional undercurrents of a larger-than-life figure.

Although officially based on Walter Isaacson’s comprehensive biography of Jobs, Sorkin’s screenplay doesn’t follow the book’s birth-to-death linear narrative of Jobs’s life. Like Citizen Kane, the film presents a series of tableaux that reveal different aspects of its protagonist.

“As Welles does in Citizen Kane, Sorkin and Boyle use a biographical tale not merely to portray the life of an individual, but to explore the emotional undercurrents of a larger-than-life figure.”

In Citizen Kane, co-written by Welles and Herman J. Mankiewicz, the title character is viewed through a series of recollections of those who knew him — Walter Thatcher (George Coulouris), his banker and initial caretaker; Mr. Bernstein (Everett Sloane), the general manager of his newspaper; Jedediah Leland (Joseph Cotten), his colleague and one-time friend; Susan Alexander Kane (Dorothy Comingore), his second wife; and Raymond (Paul Stewart), the aloof butler at his palatial estate. Each account provides a different perspective, colored by the viewpoint of the speaker.

Sorkin’s approach in Steve Jobs also eschews a comprehensive chronological unfolding of a life to show Jobs through a series of three tableaux offering progressive views of the film’s subject. Each of these three sequences presents the moments leading up to when Jobs will take the stage to make a major product announcement: the 1984 launch of the Macintosh, the 1988 debut of the NeXT computer after Jobs had been forced out of Apple, and the 1998 debut of the iMac following Jobs’s triumphant return to the helm of Apple.

Although each of the three sequences shows Jobs preparing to go on stage for one of his famous presentations, each ends just before the climactic moment. We see Jobs ascend the stage to great audience anticipation but, before he addresses the crowd, the scene cuts. While Jobs’s presentations are legendary, that’s not the part of the story that interests Sorkin and Boyle. It’s what happens behind the scenes that reveals the character they want to illuminate.

In each of the three segments Jobs (portrayed by Michael Fassbender) is seen interacting with the same set of individuals. Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), the head of Apple’s marketing team, constantly wrestles with Jobs over everything from the details of the presentation he’s about to give to how he’s mistreating those around him. Apple engineering wiz Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg) suffers Jobs’s outrageous demands and heaps of abuse. John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), in one of the film’s brief flashbacks, is seduced by Jobs to serve as CEO of Apple and then later, in another flashback, wins the support of Apple’s board and ousts Jobs from the company he founded.

Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen) has deep affection for his longtime friend and co-founder, but is frequently frustrated by Jobs’s arrogance and inability to give praise or acknowledgement to the work of others. “What do you do?” Wozniak asks. “You can’t write code. You’re not an engineer. You’re not a designer. You can’t put a hammer to a nail. I built the circuit board. The graphical interface was stolen from Xerox PARC…. So how come ten times in a day I read Steve Jobs is a genius? What do you do?”

“While Jobs’s presentations are legendary, that’s not the part of the story that interests Sorkin and Boyle. It’s what happens behind the scenes that reveals the character they want to illuminate.”

‘Great Men Molded by … Abandonment’

The characters at the center of the film’s emotional arc are Jobs’s estranged girlfriend, Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston) and, most significantly, Lisa, the daughter that Jobs continually denies is his (played at various ages by Makenzie Moss, Ripley Sobo, and Perla Haney-Jardine).

Jobs pushes away Chrisann and refuses to admit that Lisa is his daughter. Early in the film, Chrisann confronts him about how he feels about the fact that she and Lisa are living on welfare while Jobs’s Apple stock is worth $441 million. Jobs’s detached response is to note that Apple helps young people by donating millions of dollars’ worth of computers to schools.

Both Citizen Kane and Steve Jobs are tales of great men molded by a sense of abandonment in their childhood. When his poor and uncultured family stumbles into great wealth, the young Charles Foster Kane is given over to be raised by a banker, Mr. Thatcher, so he can be properly educated. Steve Jobs was given up twice — first by his biological parents and then by potential adoptive parents who decided not to raise him.

Underneath Kane’s towering media empire and Jobs’s amazing technological innovations, lies the quest to fill this emotional void. Both men grow to be fabulously successful, yet are emotionally stunted.

“I’m poorly made,” Sorkin’s Jobs ultimately admits to his daughter Lisa. Kane’s colleague Jedediah Leland tells him: “You don’t care about anything except you. You just want to persuade people that you love ’em so much that they ought to love you back. Only you want love on your own terms. Something to be played your way, according to your rules.”

Sorkin’s screenplay similarly emphasizes Jobs’s desire for “end to end control” of both his computing devices and his emotional life. Equally apparent is Jobs’s disdain for those around him. “Why do you want people to dislike you?” Apple engineer Andy Hertzfeld asks Jobs. “I’m indifferent to whether or not people like me,” is Jobs’s reply.

“‘Why do you want people to dislike you?’ Apple engineer Andy Hertzfeld asks Jobs. ‘I’m indifferent to whether or not people like me,’ is Jobs’s reply.”

The tension between being great and being good is central to both films. “Can a great man… be a good man?” the tag line for a Steve Jobs television spot asks. “If I hadn’t been very rich, I might have been a really great man,” Kane tells his newspaper’s manager, Mr. Bernstein. “It’s not binary,” Jobs’s longtime friend and colleague Steve Wozniak shouts in a fit of anger at a recalcitrant Jobs. “You can be decent and gifted at the same time.”

In Citizen Kane, the shifting perspectives of the various narrators slowly fill in the pieces of the man’s life. In Steve Jobs, by contrast, we see the character with the same individuals throughout the film, but Jobs interacts with them in evolving ways. It’s time that has changed in each sequence, and Sorkin wants to show us a man who, despite a profound obstinacy and his famous “reality distortion field,” grows to embrace a more complete understanding of himself and his life.

This is perhaps the most significant way in which Steve Jobs diverges from Citizen Kane. In Welles’s film, Charles Foster Kane ends up alone, never gaining the love he so desperately seeks. At the end of his life, Kane gazes into a snow globe originally owned by Susan Alexander when their romance first blossomed. The glass orb now serves as a wistful remembrance of the boyhood dreams that are forever lost to the elderly Kane. Sorkin’s Jobs, in contrast, comes to realize the significance of the familial relationship he has avoided for much of his life and begins, at last, to embrace it.

Both men gain the world, but while Charles Foster Kane loses his soul, Steven Paul Jobs finds his.

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