It’s Not Binary

I love movies. Always have. But I don’t always get to see movies I want to see, usually due to one of three things:

  1. The cost of seeing movies in the theater. If I saw every movie that interested me on its first run in theaters, I wouldn’t be able to afford small things like gas, food, or my mortgage.
  2. Language, violence, or sexual content. I’m not a prude, but I’m not willing to submit myself to gratuitous anything anymore. Restraint is a wonderful tool that so many films neglect these days.
  3. The magic of on-demand viewing. At some point, I know I’ll be able to find any movie I want to see either on Netflix, Amazon, or my cable’s on-demand service. So I can save money, stay at home, and skip through parts I find objectionable – or just stop watching altogether as often as I want.

All of that is a long-winded way of saying I finally got around to seeing Aaron Sorkin’s Steve Jobs last night, and I really enjoyed it. I could go into a detailed review of the movie, but it’s old and no one wants to read what I have to say about actors and camera work and scriptwriting and so forth.

But there was a moment, a line, that I absolutely loved (here’s the scene, but be advised there’s strong language). It comes from a scene near the movie’s end where Steve Wozniak (played by Seth Rogen) and Steve Jobs (Michael Fassbender) argue over Jobs refusal to acknowledge the work done by Wozniak. It’s one of the film’s best scenes because it reveals the growth in Wozniak versus the static nature of Jobs.

As the argument reaches its peak, Wozniak declares that the products Jobs makes are better than he is as a human. And Jobs says, “That’s the idea.”

Then Wozniak says, “It’s not binary. You can be decent and gifted at the same time.”

Of all the movie’s great lines, this one stands out because it’s the most accurate in terms of assessing Jobs as a character and in assessing our culture’s obsession with the driven genius. In so many ways, we have become a binary society – you are either this or that on any given issue. Politics. Sports. Morality. Equality. Race. Economics. We have distilled what it means to be human into polarized essences along the spectrum of belief.

Our heroes have become one dimensional. We want flat, easy-to-understand characters that will always act in the predictable ways, even if the predictable is their unpredictability. Give us characters who are rebels, who are smarter than everyone else, who make the common man – or the man with different morals and worldview – seem like the simpleton he really is. We paint those who agree with our definition of a hero in glorious color and then gloss over the alternative view with a wide, dull gray.

Our culture talks about the need for nuance and depth and space, but the truth is we don’t really want those things. We want to lay claim to them to make ourselves feel better. We want to pretend we’re better human beings than we often really are. We want to elevate the idols of our own image and tear down any other altars we may find.

But the truth is in that line, that one insightful line that Aaron Sorkin put in his screenplay to serve as a sifting tray for both his characters and audience. As human beings, we are not binary; we are not either/or creatures. We are both/and beings, living in perpetual tension.

We can be both decent and gifted. It’s just harder.


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