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Bullies are made, not born. Look beyond their attempts to intimidate and dominate and you’ll often find broken homes, rejection, or abuse that they themselves suffer. It’s an impulse to appear strong, or a fear of appearing weak. There’s almost always a story.
Steve Jobs tells one such story, about the titular man whom most of the tech-savvy praised while he was alive, mourned when he died, and later came to find out was quite the asshole. (This is the third theatrically released film about Jobs in two years, so by now the history of his rocky relationship with Apple as its co-founder is old movie news.) Directed by Danny Boyle and adapted by Aaron Sorkin from Walter Isaacson’s biography, the film shows Jobs (Michael Fassbender) at his nastiest, yes, but also redeems him in a rather forced and literally haloed final scene that’s an abrupt turn from what came before.
That isn’t the only laughable moment in Steve Jobs; Sorkin’s trademark too-clever dialogue occasionally trips over itself. (At times it’s even theatrical, recalling Mamet-ian rhythms.) And though it’s noble that Boyle was more interested in capturing the essence of Jobs than his look, it’s difficult to accept Fassbender in the role: A black mock turtleneck and short haircut is not enough to conjure Jobs in his later years; as a young Steve, the actor’s broad, bare forehead and face could have belonged to any businessman except Jobs. Mock Ashton Kutcher’s performance in 2013’s often-goofy Jobs all you want, but at least the resemblance kept the man you were learning about front and center in your mind.
Fassbender also adds a playfulness to his character, both physically (sliding down a stair rail after an intense argument) and verbally (Sorkin puts a lot of zingers into the Apple leader’s mouth), that seems, at the very least, incompatible with the personage the public knew—and definitely with how Jobs and the documentary Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine portrayed him. You may marvel at his quick wit and quicker temper yet forget whom you’re supposed to be watching.
That said, Steve Jobs is a brisk and largely enjoyable two hours. Jeff Daniels and Seth Rogen appear as onetime Apple CEO John Scully and co-founder Steve Wozniak, respectively, both of whom have heated moments with their former colleague. The biggest difference this film has from the others, however, is the presence of Joanna Hoffman, marketing manager of both Apple and Jobs’ follow-up project, NeXT. Portrayed by Kate Winslet, the spirited character is both entertaining and a distraction: Between a lack of introduction and early ’80s wigs and glasses that are way too artificial, you’re left wondering who this person is to Jobs.
Boyle contains Jobs’ life within three days in 1984, 1988, and 1998: the launches of the Macintosh, NeXT’s Cube, and the iMac. The action all takes place backstage before each event and rather ingeniously weaves the high and low points of Jobs’ life since Apple—and his daughter/not-my-daughter—was born. Wozniak and Scully help with remembrances and flashbacks, while Jobs’ daughter, Lisa—whom he first denied—tags along with her mom (Katherine Waterson) at the first two launches for heavy guilt trips. (Jobs was worth hundreds of millions, yet threw only a few hundred at his ex every month.)
Joanna plays the level-headed sounding board here, the only person with whom Jobs doesn’t really tussle. Otherwise, most of his encounters are fraught, showered with angry outbursts both justifiable (over his forced resignation) and not (yelling “She’s not my…!” in front of a five-year-old isn’t very cool). This bully maintains an indirect rationalization for his temper and furious need for control: his adoption, or “rejection,” as he was allegedly first adopted by a couple who changed their minds after a month.
Fassbender does, admittedly, turn in a natural, easy performance considering the complications of the real man, and Daniels, Rogen, and Winslet contribute to the film’s sleekness. This may be the Jobs biopic you’ve been waiting for, even if you sometimes forget that it’s about Jobs.
Steve Jobs opens Friday at Landmark Atlantic Plumbing and Landmark Bethesda Row.