Steve Jobs Review: Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, and Seth Rogen Shine in Cerebral Film

Michael Fassbender as Steve Jobs
Michael Fassbender stuns as Steve Jobs in Aaron Sorkin's cerebral film, Jobs. Francois Duhamel/ Universal Pictures

3 (out of 4)

“You can be decent and gifted at the same time!”

That line of dialogue, written by Aaron Sorkin, could have been lifted from his film The Social Network to describe Mark Zuckerberg. Instead, a man named Steve Wozniak barks it to his former partner, Apple mastermind Steve Jobs, in a movie so whip-smart and engrossing that you won’t even think about checking that iPhone in the theater. (It premiered Oct. 3 at the 53rd annual New York Film Festival and will be released in New York and Los Angeles on Oct. 9.)

By the way, if you thought Zuckerberg came off as a detached jerk in Sorkin’s Oscar-winning screenplay, just wait. This tech genius is significantly more flawed.

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Now forget about every biopic you’ve ever seen — including the middling 2013 Jobs, which starred Ashton Kutcher in the title role. This one isn’t interested in a straightforward narrative in which an adopted college dropout builds a computer out of his garage, becomes a multi-billionaire and dies of cancer in 2011 at age 56. No. Sorkin and director Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire) put the focus squarely on the backstage drama leading up to three major product launches. Unfolding in real time, it's staged like an intense three-act play . . . and there’s no doubt it will be one day.

We begin in 1984 when Steve (Michael Fassbender) prepares to debut the MacIntosh computer in Cupertino, California. (Boyle shoots this on a grainy home video-like camera, giving it a nifty aged look.) About 40 minutes before go-time, he’s panicked because the screen on display can’t “say hello” to the shareholders. In short order, his VIPs step into the picture. He strategizes with his trusty marketing head Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet); orders his chief engineer Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg) to fix the glitch; bitterly feuds with his ex-girlfriend Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston) over the paternity of her 5-year-old daughter, Lisa; bristles with “Woz” (Seth Rogen) about whether he should thank the Apple II team in his speech; and clinks glasses with his CEO John Sculley (Jeff Daniels).

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Get to know this cast of characters: They also appear right before the 1988 NeXT system and 1998 iMac unveilings.

This unusual and admittedly confining structure is bound to polarize. Indeed, it can be jarring to absorb decades’ worth of information — including the apparently messy breakup from Brennan — in high-speed dialogue snips. It’s up to you to deduct how the two Steves went from the garage to the Cupertino auditorium in the 1980s and how Lisa’s relationship with her father developed in the 1990s. Sorkin might also come under fire for taking obvious artistic liberties in the script. Though based on Walter Isaacson’s bestselling (and cooperative) memoir of the same name, the film plays loose with many of its anecdotal details. That book never described how Jobs hinted about the iPod to Lisa in a parking lot. Heck, Hoffman was retired by 1998, and she’s a key player in Act 3.

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And yet it computes. Judging by all those millions of YouTube hits, most everyone is already familiar with the dynamic speaker who rhapsodized in a black turtleneck, tight jeans, and white New Balance sneakers. Here, as Jobs interacts with the people closest to him at watershed moments, we get to see what makes him tick literally behind the scenes. Just hearing him snidely explain to Chrisann in 1984 that, based on his algorithm, there’s a 28 percent chance he’s not Lisa’s father speaks volumes. The same goes for his condescending treatment of the good-hearted Woz. He actually calls him “little buddy.”

Besides, to paraphrase the old company slogan. . . . Sorkin thinks different. He writes in distinct syncopated rhythm that sounds like a verbal concerto. Every sentence is meticulously constructed in such a way that even if you don’t particularly like what the characters are saying, you’ll still want to listen to the music. All the performers beautifully play their instrument. The amazing Fassbender, on screen every moment, transforms into Jobs. No matter that he scarcely resembles the man — he captures the essence. Count on Oscar nominations for him, Rogen, and Winslet.

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The brainy film could just use more heart. It’s clear that Jobs is gifted at making groundbreaking things even though he is himself poorly made. Nonetheless, the unlikeable factor rates high. He perpetually comes off as an arrogant SOB unapologetic about his disdain for human connection. By the time he realizes that personal relationships are vital, the payoff is slight. Even if there’s truth to this characterization, it doesn’t explain why Hoffman would be so loyal. Or why Lisa would want to live with him. Or why he’d inspire his Apple underlings to greatness.

We already see the temperamental genius; we need more dimension within the man. Too much to ask for Act 4?

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