“Steve Jobs” is a chamber play, a character study, an ensemble juggling act, and a meditation on the uses and abuses of charisma. Mostly, it’s a shining example of the unbearable Aaron Sorkin-ness of being. What it’s not about, as far as I can tell, is any actual person named Steve Jobs.
Does this matter? Should it matter? Not during the crackling 122 minutes of the movie itself, but afterward, probably. Almost all of what happens or is said in “Steve Jobs” didn’t actually happen or get said; the movie, instead, dramatizes its screenwriter’s long-established themes of big personalities and power games, of manipulation and moralism, by slapping well-known names on some very game actors. The movie takes our twinned adoration and suspicion of the geniuses in our midst and orchestrates them with dialogue sharp enough to give you paper cuts. The movie’s often great, appalling fun. And it’s still not really about Steve Jobs.
Still, there’s Michael Fassbender, who looks nothing like Steve Jobs, giving a whiplash performance as a character named Steve Jobs. The movie is divided into thirds, each act taking place in the moments before a crucial product launch: the Macintosh in 1984, the NEXT cube in 1988, the iMac in 1998. The same scrum of acolytes, enemies, admirers, and roadkill circulate around the man with the burning eyes and the brusque manner.
With a disdain that surely must land somewhere on the spectrum, he dismisses them all in favor of the next new thing. As for the people who buy his computers and crowd the launches — and who, indeed, will sit in movie theaters or at home watching this movie while checking their iPhones — he has only the contempt of a conquering visionary. “They won’t know what they’re looking at or why they like it, but they’ll want it,” Sorkin’s Jobs says. And he’s right.
The director is Danny Boyle, but you can’t really tell, since this normally hyperactive filmmaker (“Slumdog Millionaire,” “127 Hours”) is penned in by the backstage locations and the demands of Sorkin’s chatterbox script. If the movie reminds a moviegoer of anything, oddly enough, it’s last year’s “Birdman,” which also caromed multiple characters off a stressed-out central figure in a cloistered theatrical setting before a moment of revelation. Where “Birdman” leaned on filmmaking razzle-dazzle, “Steve Jobs” treats dialogue like a runaway train: You grab it and hold on.
Whomever Fassbender’s playing, he’s galvanizing to watch, a figure for whom doubt is the slightest of annoyances. People keep asking him to act like a human and he looks at them as though they’re crazy. So the Macintosh costs $3,000 and there’s nothing you can do with it; so the NEXT is a boondoggle that’s little more than a demo — Steve has a plan. What’s the plan? “The plan will reveal itself when you’re ready to see it," he says. His greatest product is his own mythic certainty.
Those closest to him see the monster behind the myth. “Steve Jobs” builds a Greek chorus from a handful of characters. Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg) is one of the original Apple team wonks, summoning reserves of quiet decency that grow in anger over the years. Jon Sculley (Jeff Daniels) is the CEO father figure betrayed, in this telling, by the son. Seth Rogen turns Jobs’s first partner Steve Wozniak — “Woz” — into an affable bear grown bitter with resentment as the Steve Jobs legend becomes iconic. “I am tired of being Ringo when I know I was John,” he says in a climactic shouting match toward the end. To which Jobs shrugs, “Everyone loves Ringo.”
Closest to this revisionist anti-hero are two women. One is Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), the Poland-born Apple marketing chief who in this movie serves as the man’s conscience. (“Will you absolve me of your Eastern European disapproval?” Jobs groans at one point.) The other is Lisa, the daughter Jobs denied was his until a paternity suit proved otherwise, and who is played over the decades by three very good actresses, Makenzie Moss at 5, Ripley Sobo at 9, and Perla Haney-Jardine at 19. (Katherine Waterston plays Lisa’s mother, Chrisann Brennan, glowering righteously in the wings.)
The scenes between father and daughter are the movie’s heart, and they reveal an emotionally soft Jobs the rest of the movie struggles to support. (A final sequence on a rooftop parking lot feels like a particular stretch.) When all is said and done, “Steve Jobs” is a stunt, very well crafted with its mix-and-match camerawork (16mm for 1984, 35mm for 1988, digital for 1998), occasionally over-crafted (that operatic argument between Jobs and Sculley in the middle section), but with little to offer beyond the spectacle of a difficult man bending the world to his will. Sorkin takes as his source Walter Isaacson’s best-selling biography and runs it through the Sorkinator, and the results aren’t nearly as cinematic as his script for “The Social Network.” They’re more like the face-offs of his TV shows (“The West Wing,” “The Newsroom”) stacked atop each other.
In the process, “Steve Jobs” runs roughshod over reality (Lisa was never at any of the product launches; the NEXT was hardly designed to fail; no one in 1998 mentions Jobs’s new wife and two young children). Far more important, it rings emotionally and dramatically false, too at variance with the actual outsized talents and flaws of this man as they’ve been obsessively catalogued elsewhere. We don’t go to Hollywood movies for hard facts, but it’d be nice to think we’re getting some kind of truth with our entertainment. Maybe Aaron Sorkin thinks we can’t handle the truth.
★ ★ ½
Directed by Danny Boyle. Written by Aaron Sorkin, based on the book by Walter Isaacson. Starring Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Seth Rogen, Michael Stuhlbarg, Jeff Daniels. At Boston Common, Kendall Square. 122 minutes. R (language)