"I'm poorly made."
That's Steve Jobs talking - well, wordsmith Aaron Sorkin channeling Steve Jobs - near the end of the film that bears the name of the Apple cofounder and late, lamented, mythologized, criticized tech icon.
Jobs (Michael Fassbender) is talking to his daughter, Lisa (Perla Haney-Jardine), a Harvard freshman whose relationship with dad has been rocky, to say the least. First, Jobs denied that he was her father, and even after DNA tests proved paternity, he refused to acknowledge her. In Steve Jobs, directed with cinematic gusto by Danny Boyle from a theater-piece Sorkin script, Lisa comes and goes (ages 5 and 9, two very good young actresses), and the Silicon Valley gazillionaire treats her and her mother (Katherine Waterston) abominably every time.
Jobs' admission comes in response to the 19-year-old Lisa's blunt query, "Why did you say you weren't my father?" And it comes after the storied product launches that defined Jobs' early career - and gives the movie its three-act structure. The feat (and maybe the flaw) of Boyle and Sorkin's Steve Jobs is that everything happens in a mad flurry of walk-and-talks and sit-still-and-soliloquize moments, backstage and behind the scenes during the unveiling of the Macintosh computer in 1984, the launch of the NeXT black cube in 1988, and the iMac in 1998.
Jobs bobs and weaves, barking orders and brooding openly as he worries the details of the unveiling of these seminal machines. For much of the time, he is shadowed by his marketing director and confidante, Joanna Hoffman (an at-first-unrecognizable Kate Winslet), who double-duties as Jobs' human PDA and as the audience's surrogate. John Sculley, the soda company chairman whom Jobs hired to run Apple and then was fired by in a boardroom blowup, appears prominently, and dramatically. As played by Sorkin's go-to man Jeff Daniels (The Newsroom's Will McAvoy), Sculley is less the villain of the piece than a victim of Jobs' Machiavellian schemes. More than anything else in the film - which credits Walter Isaacson's authorized Jobs biography as a main source - the Sculley scenario diverges from the accepted narrative.
Is Steve Jobs a great film? I don't think so. It's an achievement, certainly, full of Sorkin flourishes, breathtaking and brilliant one-liners that reveal a lot about the characters who deliver them.
Boyle, the Slumdog Millionaire Oscar winner who directed a National Theatre production of Frankenstein in 2011 and the London Summer Olympics opening hoopla in 2012, both respects the tight, claustrophobic structure that Sorkin has handed him, and pushes at it with the twitchiness of a restless kid.
The acting is unarguably, uniformly strong. Fassbender's Jobs bristles with urgency and angst, and his skin practically sweats genius. Winslet, with her heavy-rimmed glasses and soft mid-European twang, makes Hoffman's presence - and importance - felt; Seth Rogen is Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak, Jobs' colleague back in that fabled garage, now reduced to watching his pal from the audience as the curtain pulls back and the spotlights go on; Michael Stuhlbarg is Andy Hertzfeld, part of Jobs' original Macintosh team - and part of the reason Jobs finally owns up to his responsibilities as a parent.
But putting aside questions of historical accuracy and psychological accuracy (there have been plenty of complaints, from people who knew and worked with the man), Steve Jobs doesn't entirely add up. Yes, he was a perfectionist, a control freak. Yes, he brushed people aside, knocked people down, reduced people to tears. And yes, he was responsible for the look, feel, and function of some of the most life- and society-changing tools of our time.
"Behind every beautiful thing, there's been some kind of pain," Bob Dylan sings in "Not Dark Yet." Dylan was one of Jobs' artist gods (John Lennon was another), but Steve Jobs only goes so far in showing the pain that coursed through Jobs' psyche.
The beautiful things he made are a given, now. The pain remains something of a mystery.
Written by Aaron Sorkin, directed by Danny Boyle. With Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Jeff Daniels, Seth Rogen, and
Perla Haney-Jardine. Distributed by
Running time: 2 hours, 2 mins.
Parent's guide: R (profanity, adult themes).