Steve Jobs was a genius, and Steve Jobs was a jerk. That's how his reputation is shaking out in the years since his death in 2011, but that verdict hasn't dimmed interest in his life story or legacy, as if picking apart the facts of his adoption, his psychedelic revelations, or his visionary reshaping of the digital age could somehow reverse engineer the "reality distortion field" that he wielded, for reasons good and bad, upon everyone who crossed his path. Lately, there have been a number of competing cinematic inquiries that have tried to figure out what made him tick (including Alex Gibney's documentary Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine), and now screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing) has thrown his mouse into the ring with Steve Jobs, drawing from Walter Isaacson's definitive biography of the man but mostly veering into rarefied, semi-fictional territory.
The movie's unusual structure spans 14 years and three peeks backstage, as Jobs and assorted handlers, friends, enemies, and interlopers pace the boards and make final preparations before presenting his next big thing -- the original Apple Macintosh in 1984; the NeXT workstation in 1988, created after Jobs was removed from Apple by the board of directors; and the iMac in 1998, made after he returned to the company he built. (We never see the actual unveilings, only the frantic preparations and the crowds champing at the bit.) Each on-stage "birth" is accompanied by the poignant backstage appearance of Lisa Brennan, Jobs' unacknowledged, illegitimate daughter, who grows from a worshipful five-year-old to a resentful young adult over the course of the film as her silicon siblings steal her father's eye. Apple's first drag-and-drop computer was named Lisa, too - and when Jobs glibly, blithely lies to the girl and says that it only stands for "Local Integrated System Architecture," his cruelty is so unbearable that audiences might start rooting for his downfall.
This movie is packed full of great performances, including Kate Winslet as Jobs' beleaguered handler Joanna Hoffman, and, delightfully, Seth Rogen as Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, who plumbs real emotional depth while still retaining his Fozzie Bear charisma. The best in show, however, is Jeff Daniels as John Sculley, the former Pepsi CEO whom Jobs famously lured into Apple's fold with the come-on, "Do you want to sell sugared water for the rest of your life? Or do you want to come with me and change the world?" Sculley first appears in act one as an ersatz father figure who offers an approving glass of champagne to Jobs before the Macintosh unveiling, and he returns in the NeXT passage (the film's best segment) as an exiled CEO who maintains that he doesn't deserve the epitaph, "The Man Who Fired Steve Jobs." His performance as a man living through a Shakespearean fall from grace is one of the best of his career, and he's a standout even in this capable crowd.
Michael Fassbender, unfortunately, is the weak link, even aside from his lack of resemblance to Jobs (although you have to acknowledge that he delivers a strong effort). The problem is that his innate demeanor is all wrong. Fassbender is dreamy and remote, qualities that worked well as a disconnected, emotionally frozen sex addict in Shame, but not here. Jobs should be pointed, incisive, intense, predatory, canny (Christian Bale, a better overall choice, dropped out of the production after initially being cast). When Fassbender's Jobs loses his temper, his foul mood feels like a dark cloud rumbling in, when it should feel like the lethal pressure of a spear tip. While wags might chuckle over Ashton Kutcher's previous, inadequate portrayal of the tech genius in Jobs (2013), at least he understood the fire in the man's belly. (The best performance as Jobs actually comes from Noah Wyle in the unfairly forgotten 1999 TV movie Pirates of Silicon Valley. Wyle not only bore the closest resemblance to Jobs, but understood the fierce, indignant hurt behind the visionary megalomania.)
Luckily, even the miscasting of Fassbender can't upstage Steve Jobs' main attraction: Aaron Sorkin's witty, nimble, and shrewd dialogue. Director Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire) knows that the script is the meat of this movie, and wisely restrains his usual frenetic style in favor of delivering what's essentially a filmed play. No screenwriter currently working is better than Sorkin at scripting tight, tango-like dialogue, in which momentum and meaning swerve on pithy zingers, and characters unpeel their motivations one line at a time in a sort of psychological striptease. (Indeed, Sorkin's previous rise-of-the-nerds epic The Social Network could be seen as a philosophical sequel to this picture.)
We might not see another figure like Jobs any time soon. His legacy was fueled by an anti-collaborationist, "my way or the highway" ethos that's the antithesis of the crowd-sourcing mentality currently in vogue in Silicon Valley. This movie reveals that he built the Macintosh to be housed in a case that could only be opened with proprietary tools so the rabble couldn't monkey around inside, a locked box as impervious as its creator. But by the time Jobs started to realize what he'd lost in not having a relationship with his daughter, his mind was on the iMac: a device designed to connect with other people, a necessary prosthesis for his solitary soul. Steve Jobs isn't a documentary or even a docudrama. It's a broad-brush portrait of Jobs as a metaphor for the tug-of-war between solipsistic genius and intimate connection. What does it mean to choose between being our best, and being our most human? It took the real Steve Jobs a lifetime to figure out the balance between the two. Steve Jobs the movie solves it elegantly, beautifully, and in far less time. That's Moore's Law for you.