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Movie review: ‘Steve Jobs’ explores the shadow material of the Apple co-founder

Seth Rogen, left, stars with Michael Fassbender, who has the title role, in “Steve Jobs.”
Seth Rogen, left, stars with Michael Fassbender, who has the title role, in “Steve Jobs.” Universal Studios

Michael Fassbender, who plays Steve Jobs in the movie “Steve Jobs,” looks nothing like Steve Jobs. And that’s a good thing.

Rather than a literalistic rehash of the life and career of the man behind the Apple personal computing empire, “Steve Jobs” creates an impressionistic inner portrait, a Shakespearean character study in three tautly constructed acts in which Jobs’ contradictions, demons and most searing primal wounds are revealed in constantly peeling layers. Unburdened by the distraction of spot-on impersonation and conventional Great Man milestones, Fassbender and his fascinating, often off-putting character steer clear of the dreaded biopic shallows to explore murkier psychological depths.

Propelled by an ingenious script by Aaron Sorkin, given vibrance and buoyancy by director Danny Boyle, “Steve Jobs” is a galvanizing viewing experience. It’s perhaps the closest thing to the thrilling immediacy of live theater that audiences can get at the multiplex right now.

Sorkin. best known as the creator of “The West Wing” and for his screenplay for “The Social Network,” is famous for his crackling dialogue, which harks back to Hollywood’s rat-a-tat-tat Golden Age and is usually delivered by way of breathless, circuitous walk-and-talks. That exuberant musicality is on full display in “Steve Jobs,” but Sorkin’s real breakthrough here is with structure.

The movie takes place in three discrete 40-minute chapters, each of which finds Jobs on the verge of presenting one of his signature products. Transpiring virtually in real time, these moments work on a number of levels, equally effectively: While Jobs welcomes colleagues and well-wishers (and some not-so-well-wishers) from his past, Sorkin’s script is able to revisit all manner of biographical material without dreary exposition or billboard scenes.

Throughout “Steve Jobs,” Jobs’ colleagues observe that he’s not an engineer or a designer. Instead, he was a synthesizer, someone who deployed those disciplines to create devices that weren’t just functional, but lovable. Here we see what drove that single-minded focus, and glimpse the enigma beneath the carefully cultivated persona. Rather than the boyish, bow-tied nerd and, later, the Zenned out, turtleneck-wearing philosopher king, the movie’s Jobs is arrogant, petty, insecure and perpetually enraged, just as he’s utterly confident that he’s on the cusp of changing the world.

Of course, he’s right – but he doesn’t know that yet in 1984 when, two days after the revolutionary ad for the Macintosh ran during the Super Bowl, he’s launching the machine itself. Arguing with longtime friend and Apple co-founder Steve “Woz” Wozniak (Seth Rogen) and marketing chief Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet, adopting a note-perfect Polish accent), Jobs obsesses over whether the computer onstage will be able to say “Hello.”

Through his bullying back-and-forths and a few brief flashbacks, one of the film’s central conceits is established: To Wozniak’s chagrin, Jobs always insisted on “end-to-end control” for his machines, meaning they wouldn’t be able to communicate with other systems or be customized by their users. But he adamantly insisted that they be warm and friendly, the antidote to years of Hollywood demonizing computers as HAL-like malignancies and, just perhaps, the antidote to his own demons.

When new Apple CEO John Sculley (Jeff Daniels) shows up to calm Jobs with a glass of wine, he traces Jobs’s spiky personality to having been adopted as a baby, asking him why he views adoption as being rejected, rather than selected. Jobs dismisses the question out of hand. “It’s the loss of control,” he insists quietly.

Jobs doesn’t harbor unresolved feelings just regarding his biological parents, but also about his own role as a father. In each chapter of “Steve Jobs,” which jumps to product launches for the NeXT Computer and the iMac, he’s confronted by sometimes-angry friends and business associates, as well as the daughter he had with his now-estranged girlfriend, Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston).

Jobs’s fractured relationship with that daughter, Lisa, forms the emotional fulcrum of “Steve Jobs” – which, from its backstage perch, offers starkly candid examples of the protagonist’s shocking lack of empathy, even as he strives to create the world’s most intuitive machine. While Jobs stresses about sales figures, refuses Woz’s pleas to give a shout-out to the engineers who worked on the Apple II (which Jobs came to despise), shouts orders at beleaguered employees desperately trying to please him, and turns on the charm for a visiting reporter, he treats Lisa with breathtaking cruelty, initially denying that she’s his daughter and – only eventually – tentatively allowing her into his life.

With such a tetchy, self-absorbed control freak at its center, it’s difficult to explain just why “Steve Jobs” is as entertaining, even pleasurable, as it is. Even the finer points of fonts, motherboard expansion slots and corporate intrigue take on the soaring dimensions of a socio-historical epic.

A large part of the credit goes to Fassbender and his co-stars, who turn Sorkin’s mannered, spoken arias into conversational, convincingly intimate chamber pieces. Boyle infuses the production with characteristic visual verve, such as the clever change of formats between each section (from grainy 16mm film to classical 35mm and finally to digital), the camera’s moves that follow Jobs’s predatory path and, at one point, the bits of video collage illustrating a self-important speech about the space program.

“Steve Jobs” unfolds at such breakneck pace, with such densely layered meanings and metaphors, that viewers have little chance to decide whether they buy what is essentially a reductive psycho-biography of a man who was surely propelled by a complicated and constantly changing skein of motivations, impulses and ambitions.

Perhaps the most insightful observation is never explicitly expressed in “Steve Jobs,” which is his indelible impact as a social engineer. By embedding products with his deepest flaws and highest aspirations, Jobs wound up exporting those qualities to his customers, creating a generation that’s simultaneously hyper-connected and alarmingly detached.

Jobs’ devices have brought the universe into our pockets, but they have made our immediate world a far less warm and interesting place. Avoiding one another behind screens, we can friend strangers one minute and bark out an angry tweet the next when they fail to conform to our exacting standards.

The unchecked hubris that drives “Steve Jobs” is often unpleasant, even repellent to behold. But even at his most overbearingly godlike, the film’s protagonist might have been on to something: There’s a little bit of Steve Jobs in all of us now.

Steve Jobs

Cast: Michael Fassbender, Jeff Daniels, Katherine Waterston

Director: Danny Boyle

122 minutes

Rated R (Contains obscenity)

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