The enigma at the center of Steve Jobs is a man who intuitively knew what the world wanted yet was baffled by those closest to him: He was good with people as long as he didn’t have to deal with them. As played by Michael Fassbender, who channels Jobs’ spirit instead of transforming himself into a look-alike, the CEO of Apple Inc. was a stubborn, defiant, impertinent genius who demanded perfection and took offense at being questioned. He was a beloved public figure who was almost impossible to like one-on-one.
Countless movies, from Citizen Kane to Raging Bull, have been based on the lives of extraordinary men cursed with faulty emotional wiring. But director Danny Boyle and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, using Walter Isaacson’s authorized biography as a launching point, aren’t interested in a traditional biopic. Steve Jobs, which by many accounts plays loose with the facts, is at its weakest when it tries to humanize its protagonist. The scenes between Jobs and his estranged daughter Lisa (played at different ages by Perla Haney-Jardine, Ripley Sobo and Makenzie Moss) or her mother (Katherine Waterston), who had to beg Jobs to increase his monthly child support payments of $385 even though he was worth $441 million, tilt the movie toward hagiography, making Jobs a brusque man forced to learn how to love. When Jobs eyes Lisa’s clunky Walkman cassette player and promises he’s going to design a machine that will let her carry thousands of songs in her pocket, the scene makes you wince. It’s too on-the-nose, too aware of its own portent.
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The father-daughter relationship is the emotional center of Steve Jobs, and it’s a dud, as formulaic and out of place as the romantic subplots in the first season of The Newsroom, before Sorkin righted the show and trimmed all the extraneous sops. Steve Jobs, too, fares much better when it focuses on the work, because this is a case in which the work defined the man. The movie argues that a big part of Jobs’ genius was his sense of showmanship, and that his enormous ego was both hindrance and boon: He simply refused to be wrong, even when he was.
Steve Jobs is told in three acts, roughly 40 minutes each, set backstage before the unveiling of a new Apple product to an eager audience: The Macintosh in 1984, the NeXT computer in 1988 and the iMac in 1998. The hows and whys behind each new presentation require a working knowledge of the complicated history between Jobs and Apple, and it’s a testament to the man’s legacy that much of this is already implanted in popular culture, such as the famed TV commercial directed by Ridley Scott that aired nationally only once, during the 1984 Super Bowl, introducing the Macintosh without ever showing it.
Introduced by a title card, each segment catches Jobs putting out fires as he prepares to go onstage. Orbiting around him are his director of marketing, Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), who is as close to a friend as Jobs seems to have; Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen, segueing nicely into drama much like his pal Jonah Hill), who created the influential Apple II computer and needles Jobs to give the original design team some credit; and John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), the former president of Pepsi who was Jobs’ boss and mentor for several years until he became his enemy.
Each of the film’s thirds are shot on era-appropriate film stock (16mm, 35mm and digital) and scored by Daniel Pemberton using different instruments — 1980s synthesizers, a full orchestra and, for the final segment, Apple music software. The technical stylings are subliminal — some viewers may not even notice them — but they are part of the considerable creativity Boyle brings to what is essentially two hours of people walking and talking. Boyle, who managed to make the story of a man trapped in a crevice riveting in 127 Hours, keeps his camera whirling and soaring to stave off stagnation. This is a grand-looking movie, even if there isn’t anything particularly grand taking place on the screen.
Still, Sorkin’s relentless chatter starts to weigh on you: Steve Jobs feels artificial and conceptualized when it should be building to a crescendo. Near the end, when Jobs wonders why five minutes before every launch, everyone he knows seems to go to a bar, get drunk and then come to tell him what they’re thinking, the line lands like a great in-joke, a wink to the viewer that yeah, this is all a bit contrived. But it is also an acknowledgment that Steve Jobs is as much of a construct as the doomed NeXT cube. Sorkin can’t carry out the central concept without occasionally resorting to flashbacks, which feels like cheating.
The movie’s secret weapon is Fassbender, an actor who is quietly building an impressive filmography, from X-Men pictures to 12 Years a Slave. As Jobs, Fassbender keeps you invested: You’re not quite sure what to make of this opaque, fastidious man, but you’re fascinated by him – to a point Steve Jobs is, much like its protagonist, elusive yet taxing. It wears on you. The movie is to the more informative but conventional Jobs, which starred Ashton Kutcher, what the iMac is to those old gray IBM PCs: A radical improvement on design and performance, but a closed, proprietary system with its own set of tics and peculiarities.
Cast: Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Seth Rogen, Jeff Daniels, Michael Stuhlbarg, Katherine Waterston, Perla Haney-Jardine, Ripley Sobo, Makenzie Moss.
Director: Danny Boyle.
Screenwriter: Aaron Sorkin. Based on the book by Walter Isaacson.
A Universal Pictures release. Running time: 122 minutes. Vulgar language. Opens Friday Oct. 16 at area theaters.