Kings of Tech | How Fincher, Boyle and Sorkin have Redefined the Tech-Biopic

David Fincher’s The Social Network is an under-appreciated mammoth of a film. A film which helped to redefine the function of the biopic, as more than merely capturing moments and personalities.The question is not whether this is the case, but why?

Well, firstly, The Social Network all but established a new subgenre of film, the tech-biopic, capitalising on the mythology of the rising Silicon Valley elite. This subgenre eventually gave us such classics as Steve Jobs, and duds – the likes of Jobs andThe Fifth Estate.

Even before Fincher directed his attention towards the story of media’s most recent miracle, Facebook, the company had risen to astounding heights, establishing itself as a stalwart in the daily lives of billions of people around the world. The potential for backlash and the scrutiny which would surely be directed towards Fincher’s re-enactment of the company’s history was unquestionably very high.

The intention of such a film, the biopic, is in this case to reveal something that has been hidden. In the process of looking behind the public mask of such a mythic figure as Mark Zuckerburg and Steve Jobs, it is imperative that the biopic does more than just celebrate the protagonist, it is also imperative that the biopic does not simply become a timeline of facts, the biopic must dig deeper to attain the fantasy and drama of other, more imaginative genres.

Social Network -
“Fincher, in his own way, brought new life to the myth of Mark Zuckerburg, the tech wunderkind.” Source

Fincher, in his own way, brought new life to the myth of Mark Zuckerburg, the tech wunderkind. He extracted the story from the cold confines of shiny California office buildings and placed it within the ochre shadings of Harvard University, returning all the way back to the early, and youthfully awkward, days of Facebook’s inception. He dimmed the lights in all the rooms, he drew out stories from Zuckerburg’s romantic and social life, he placed the man within a plethora of conflicting emotional situations, all of which eventually depicted the difficult duality of character in such a modern-mythic figure. We, the viewers, were allowed to witness the uncompromising approach which helped Zuckerburg rise from loner programmer to baby-faced billionaire.

In the 60’s and 70’s in North America, a new literary movement began, called New Journalism. Writers such as Truman Capote and Tom Wolfe gathered facts not to relay the exact factual nature of situations, but to present the abstract and the emotional landscape which led to atrocities and ideological movements on the most troubling continent in the world. In the vein of the New Journalism movement which gained speed by the momentum of Hunter S Thompson and Tom Wolfe, facts and figures do not quite cut it when feeding information into the mass media, into films. More than facts, emotions have the power.  

What Thompson and Wolfe did was find the narrative that would shock the public enough to sit up and take notice, just like Ken Kesey’s electroshock therapy in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. In this sense The Social Network is a success. Rather than the film we were fortunate enough to eventually view, we may have been subjected to a dry action or comedy that resembled something like HBO’s Silicon Valley. We are privy to the dirty secrets of the man who purports to want to construct a new communication tool for the modern world. We view his motivations in a different light to what has been portrayed by press releases.

The Social Network, besides being a critical success, was also a box office success. That was always going to be the case, given the perfect concatenation of director, actors and story. Any film about Facebook at the time was bound to be a success. The company had been, until that point, hidden, secret, veiled within the media.

Very little was known, and Fincher, instead of attempting to capitalise on this mystique, instead attempted to show why the company held its cards so close to the chest. After the film’s success, stories about the robotic nature of Zuckerburg and his staff started to become common knowledge, coming from such luminaries as Twitter’s Biz Stone. That is the function of the biopic, to dig a little deeper, to apply a little investigation to the question, and to establish, beyond what we have already heard, facts that do more to excite our imagination and establish the real state of things.

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“[‘Steve Jobs’ is an] abstract look at the emotions and laws that govern the tech world.” Source
When Danny Boyle and Aaron Sorkin talk about their film Steve Jobs, they don’t refer to it as a biopic, instead they prefer to view the thing as an abstract look at the emotions and laws that govern the tech world.

“There is a difference between journalism and what I do,” Sorkin once told The Verge. “That doesn’t give you a license to lie, but the difference between journalism and what we do is the difference between a photograph and painting. What we’re doing is a painting.”

Biopic films are a difficult genre to pin down. One could make the case that it is a dearth of imagination that gives birth to such re-enactments of celebrity life. For it is a fact that recently those famous lives portrayed on the silver screen have been dissected to the Nth degree in the media. Is it our obsession with the lives and habits of the rich and powerful, that has given new life to the genre?

Whereas the noughties treated us to hedonistic tales of musicians and artists such as Ray Charles, Muhammad Ali and Johnny Cash, recent blockbuster biopics have trended more towards the rockstars of the modern era; tech moguls. In a way there is a feeling that the art of the modern world is less art itself than it is the careful tinkering and engineering of life’s new support system, the internet. According to Danny Boyle:

“The stories about these tech titans are crucial. They have to be answerable to somebody. They’re not answerable to governments any more, they’re beyond governments, they’re reaching out to help governments. At some point, there’s going to be a price to pay for that. It’s important to explore these people who are moulding the world, now. It’s going to be too late in 20 years. You’ve got to look at them and drag them back to the planet, because they appear to be in a stratosphere beyond in terms of money and success and power.”

How strange it is that Steve Jobs has had, not just one, but multiple movies made about his life since his death. It appears that his story, more than anybody else’s within the industry, was dying to be told. Jobs’ colleagues at Apple, Jony Ive and Tim Cook, viewed the cinematic frenzy which followed his death as a bout of opportunism, an effort to focus and thus capitalise on the myth rather than the man.

Of the films which attempt to collect and categorise the impact of his legacy within two hours, Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs is far and away the best effort, perhaps one of the best biopic efforts of the past twenty years, considering the emotional poignancy of the film, and also the brilliant scripting by a legend in his own right, Aaron Sorkin. Together Boyle and Sorkin’s individual have created an epic biopic.

The biopic film’s most obvious framing tool is to divide the acts in the film into a series of significant moments along the timeline of the protagonist. For every myth, there are defining moments, and in focusing on the emotions at play in these moments, rather than the circumstances that lead to and away from these moments, another type of understanding reveals itself.

In Steve Jobs, this was certainly the intention. We begin at the announcement of the Mac 2 in 1984, which was purported to change the world. We jump again to Steve Jobs as the outsider trying to achieve comeuppance on Apple in 1988 after the company had fired him years before, and finally we jump to 1998 when Jobs returns and reverses the fortunes of the maligned company, with the release of the iMac, after they had been forced by necessity to bring him back into the fold. These three moments do not merely show the history of Steve Jobs, the businessman. More apparent than his successes and failures, are his emotional ties with family and friends, which perpetually seem to be in a state of unrest.

His professional life and his personal life are attached inextricably. His friends are former colleagues, with whom Jobs creates friction. In each of our three acts the three most important actors in Jobs professional career return, to wage war, to mend fences, to be maligned and criticised by Steve Jobs the professional android. These characters act as leitmotifs, calling cards which reference Jobs past and his inability to escape from the things that went before the triumphal moments at which we see him.

In the same way his daughter’s presence in a scene establishes a different definition for the man, beyond the definition of him as a visionary. His life, we see, may sometimes be summed up by the success of the iMac or the iPod, but truly the achievement of his life rests with his uneasy relationship with people.

“There were two things. One was [Steve Jobs] the visionary. But more importantly, it’s fathers and daughters. I finished the script and I was in tears, because of fathers and daughters. I have two myself. [Indicates Sorkin] He has one. It’s an amazing way to humanise this tech world,” said director Danny Boyle of the relationship between father and daughter.

Whereas the dimensions of Boyle’s film allow for a different perspective on the man and the myth, a film like The Fifth Estate, which ostensibly is a look at the veiled life and personality of Wikileaks founder, Julian Assange, falters in its lack of focus. The Fifth Estate has been criticised for trying to cram too much information into its two hours. The creators attempt to show the history of Wikileaks as an organisation. That includes showing each of the main actors in the organisation, each of the main organisations involved, and each of the particularly impactful leaks.

The film often veers back and forth between such things as the dynamic of the relationship between Wikileaks’ two protagonists Julian Assange and Daniel Domscheit-Berg, without ever maintaining focus for long enough to give clear answers or ideas. It also remains unclear, who is the primary actor in the film, Assange, or Domscheit-Berg. The points of focus are all confused.

While the function of Boyle’s film is to uplift and investigate the mythology of Apple and Steve Jobs, The Fifth Estate wallows within the confines of straight-forward action and thriller dynamics, crowding its borders with far too much content. By doing so, the creators of the film make it hard for us viewers to attain any insight into the man, Julian Assange, whatsoever.

In that sense, The Fifth Estate is a bad film, a bad biopic. It has been called a journalistic thriller, which is about as bad as a tech biopic can get. The most interesting character is undoubtedly Assange. In The Fifth Estate, there seems to be little or no sympathy for the man. We view and get a sense of his ideals, alone. We aren’t allowed to grasp his emotional motivations. There are merely a few moments when Assange becomes sentimental enough to reveal something small about his backstory. We hear snippets about his tough childhood, about how he made the sacrifice of leaving his family in Australia so as to give his full focus to his company, Wikileaks. But this is all just secondary information.

The difference, then, in the final moments of each film, has a lot to do with the emotional framing of our characters. We see Jobs interact with his child in typical father-daughter mode. We see the two of them engage each other with barbs, with resentment, and eventually with sentiment. Assange, on the other hand, feels the weight of his own life, rather than the weight of his family, his loved ones, his friends.

In reference to his intentions with the film, it seems like director Bill Condon, himself, was confused by the direction in which he was trying to move the film.

“But I really was trying to do this other thing, which was make a political movie that presented all sides and kept reminding you about the implications on the other side. I don’t think people like that. I like it. I’m very proud of that movie, but I get why that’s frustrating for people. And you know, basically you step back and realise that these things happen. Probably in its structure, we had this fascinating guy at the centre and a less interesting guy whose story we were telling. It probably should be reversed. You didn’t get enough of Assange and you were spending a lot of time with someone who ultimately seemed less interesting.”

Without ideas, without nous or an angle, or any kind of particular slant, The Fifth Estate views like a straight news story; irrelevant to the history of cinema, when you already have the newsreels. These stories might as well be gifs lost in the chasm of the internet.

Condon may be right when he says that news does not fare well in the cinema. Maybe that is why these stories about tech-giants Mark Zuckerburg and Steve Jobs ended up garnering such success. In the biopic format it is better to scale the film down to a few constituent parts that reveal more about the character than about the political forces which make the character so very interesting.

With that being said, the tech-biopic only looks like it will continue gathering steam, as new heroes and villains reveal themselves. Next one up: Elon Musk?

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