Aaron Sorkin opens a new desktop icon with Steve Jobs, a briskly busy, talkative companion piece to the Newsroom and Moneyball writer's Mark Zuckerberg-centric The Social Network. Adapting Walter Isaacson's biography of the Apple innovator — and covering much of the same ground as Alex Gibney's documentary Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine — Sorkin's latest is less a novel exposé than a distinctly Sorkinian dramatization of well-known material. Still, it's helmed with whip-smart panache by Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours, Trainspotting) and boasts a backstage-drama structure that invites comparisons to last year's inferior Birdman. This is a swift and searing attempt to pull back the curtain on Jobs and, in the process, investigate the relationship between the myth and the man.
Like Sorkin's Facebook film, Steve Jobs casts its protagonist (here portrayed by Michael Fassbender) in ironic terms: as a man who triumphantly connected millions of people both through and to technology yet couldn't himself figure out how best to interact with others. That dichotomy is underlined at the outset by an archival clip of author Arthur C. Clarke laying out a forecast, to a father and son, of the computers to come and our online techno-future. And it serves as the foundation for Sorkin's tale, here broken into three chapters, each set at gala product launch. The film offers a rise-fall-rise narrative arc of both a personal and professional sort, charting Jobs' efforts to change the world through his era-defining home computers, but also his gradual transformation from an unrepentantly prickish and selfish mad genius to one who's ever-so-slightly less unrepentantly prickish and selfish.
That's not to say Steve Jobs is a hatchet job aimed at cutting its larger-than-life subject down to a more manageable size. If anything, focusing on Jobs' flaws makes him seem even grander, albeit not necessarily in the nicest way. Here, Jobs comes off as a distinctly difficult sort, beginning at 1984's debut of the Macintosh at a Cupertino community college mere days after the premiere of Apple's famous Super Bowl commercial directed by Ridley Scott. Fassbender's Jobs notes it has been dubbed "the greatest ad of all time." He also yells at and humiliates programmer Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg) for failing to get the Mac to say hello for its demo. Jobs views that articulation as vital, given his consuming belief in technology not as IBM-cold and impersonal, but as warm, inviting, and inherently human.
The idea that computers should be a reflection, and extension, of their users is central to Jobs' ethos, and Steve Jobs makes it plain that Apple's own products — created as minimalist "closed systems" that can't be opened up and modified — have been fashioned in their fussy, perfectionist, unyielding maker's flawed yet inspired likeness. Such qualities are evident in Jobs' demands on his staff, including his wifely right-hand woman, Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet). And they're even more apparent in his refusal to acknowledge his paternity to daughter Lisa. That proves a source of constant conflict with Jobs' baby-mama Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston), who in the film's opening segment rips her former flame for slandering her in the press as a whore (courtesy of a ludicrous paternity algorithm he concocted). She only backs off, temporarily, once Jobs consents to her child-support wishes — which he does after being moved by Lisa's natural, intuitive interfacing with the Macintosh's paint program.
This introductory sequence is staged by Boyle with a laser-focused fleetness and precision that — light-years removed from Birdman's single-take gimmickry — proves in tune with Sorkin's trademark rat-a-tat-tat verbal volleying. That also goes for other passages in the film, such as Jobs' disastrous 1988 presentation of a perfectly square educational computer for his new firm NeXT, and then his triumphant 1998 return to Apple to unveil the iMac. Boyle's technique effectively mirrors his main character, embodied by Fassbender not with the tics of an impersonator but through a convincing attitude of calculating detachment, ambition, and ruthlessness. He doesn't look like the man, but he feels like him, inhabiting Jobs so fully, and zealously, that the lack of resemblance proves no distraction.
Sorkin's screenplay glibly suggests that Jobs' upbringing as an adopted child might be the root of his less congenial traits and his need for admiration and validation, as when he fumes over what he considers being snubbed by Time magazine for its "Man of the Year." In the film, Jobs' familial hangups extend past his fractured bond with Lisa to his bitter enmity toward onetime Apple CEO John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), the father of the disastrous "Newton" device and a paternalistic thorn in Jobs' my-way-or-the-highway side. Then there's his contentious brotherly relationship with original colleague Steve "Woz" Wozniak, who shows up in all three chapters of the film to vainly request that Jobs give the original Apple II team some public credit. A bearded Seth Rogen plays Wozniak as something akin to a sad, discarded Teddy Ruxpin — and thus, perhaps, the inspiration for the Jobs-founded Pixar's Toy Story?
Mercifully, the film's flirtation with facile psychoanalyzing is offset by its blistering barrage of combative dialogue, all spoken in dressing rooms, offices, auditorium corridors, and other locales fit for incessant movement. At lightning speeds, the talk details reams of biographical information, internal and external character dynamics, and tectonic sociocultural-evolutionary shifts with a sharp sense of humor and an incisive understanding that reality and legend are often hopelessly intertwined — and that a man's shortcomings can elucidate, without diminishing, his visionary greatness.
Starring Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Seth Rogen, Jeff Daniels, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Katherine Waterston. Directed by Danny Boyle. Written by Aaron Sorkin. 122 minutes. Rated R.