In “Steve Jobs,” Oscar-winning writer Aaron Sorkin “Sorkins” the hell out of an unconventional adaptation of Walter Isaacson’s best-selling biography by daring to break the cardinal rule of show don’t tell. Uncorking a non-stop deluge of motion and his trademark rigueur whiplash dialogue, Sorkin sticks to his lonesome belief that words speak louder than pictures. And you know what? In his case they do – beautifully.
In taking another bite out of the Apple icon’s mythology, Sorkin and director Danny Boyle (“Slumdog Millionaire”), tightly construct the movie into three acts built around a trio of product launches: the Macintosh computer in 1984; the NeXT computer in 1988; and the iMac in 1998. It’s a clever set up that pays dividends higher than a share of Apple stock. It results in a portrayal of a conflicted man who isn’t nearly the monster Alex Gibney’s recent documentary, “Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine,” claimed him to be. Credit a lot of those sanded edges to Michael Fassbender’s empathetic take on Jobs’ many shortcomings: his relentless drive, the huge ego, the paranoia, the reckless disregard for others, including his daughter, Lisa, the heir he vehemently denied was his.
The story is told through Job’s backstage interactions with the central figures in his life. Adopting a strange Eastern European accent, Kate Winslet gives a solid turn as Jobs’ longtime – and put-upon – marketing director, Joanna Hoffman, seemingly the only person ballsy enough to stand up to him.
Seth Rogen as Steve Wozniak, Apple co-founder and friend, delivers the film’s most telling line: “You CAN be decent and gifted at the same time.” As Woz, Rogen is terrific at getting the most out of a one-note character. He has the same function throughout: to show up at each event and beg for an iota of public recognition for his Apple team. Insults (“Your products are better than you are”) are traded and Woz leaves.
Michael Stuhlbarg (“A Serious Man”) is former Apple engineer Andy Hertzfeld, an early (and often) target of Jobs’ wrath, especially when a glitch arises just 40 minutes prior to the Mac launch. “Fix it!” Jobs demands.
Former Apple CEO John Sculley, or the “Steve Whisperer” as he calls himself, is played by Sorkin favorite Jeff Daniels (“The Newsroom”). Katherine Waterston (“Inherent Vice”) has the unenviable task of playing Job’s former girlfriend, Chrisann Brennan, who seemingly brought out the worst in Jobs, and really has nothing to do in the movie but beg for money. Three actresses portray Lisa, the film’s emotional center.
Sorkin and Boyle don’t go for the jugular. What’s here is all surface-scratching, albeit entertaining and riveting in parts. The movie is as well-constructed as one of Jobs’ inventions. Sorkin humanizes the man, touching on the demons that haunted him: being adopted, his fear of losing control and his estranged daughter. It’s not nearly as informative (or scathing) as Gibney’s documentary.
You won’t leave “Steve Jobs” knowing more about the man or his game-changing devices. Heck, the movie ends before the iPod, iPad and iPhone were even invented.
For his part, Fassbender injects enough nuance and menace and playfulness to let us glimpse inside a highly enigmatic character. Never is Jobs more humanized, though, than in his relationship with Lisa. Whatever dramatic liberties Sorkin takes with the script, Fassbender projects sufficient pathos to warrant sympathy. The movie ultimately is a valentine to Lisa, who it turns out was her dad’s greatest inspiration.