Obviously, the first thing you do when the credits roll on the new film about Steve Jobs is pull out your iPhone — or whatever brand smartphone you have that blatantly copied it. Not because you just saw a movie about Jobs, but because that’s the instinct these days after any movie, or concert, or instance you’re forced to put it away for a couple of hours. Only this time the impulse feels weird, uncomfortable.
“Steve Jobs” is a movie about a man, and that man is not pleasant, not like the gadgets he’s known for. Getting ready at a conference to launch the original Macintosh in 1984, Jobs (Michael Fassbender) rails incessantly about making a personal computer that looks like a face. It has to be friendly, have a goofy grin and, importantly, politely say hello. In other words, he wants to make a computer that is nothing like Steve Jobs, something welcome in people’s homes and safe around children.
We learn right away Jobs is not safe around children, that is. He denies paternity of his own daughter, Lisa (Makenzie Moss), right in front of her, because of a feud with her mother (Katherine Waterston). It’s just one of many glaring neon signs that Jobs’ ego only has one serious competitor: his self-righteousness.
Lisa, who grows up as the film progresses through a series of product launches, serves as a kind of barometer for Jobs’ personality, which even in its more mellow moments barely dips below fanatical in a quest to change the world by wresting personal computing from its “hobbyists.”
He calls himself a conductor, but comes off more as a totalitarian dictator. Even so, writer Aaron Sorkin and director Danny Boyle make getting to know him interesting and even a little thrilling at first, sweeping us up in his minor cult of personality. But like a conductor’s avant-garde opera, what begins as interesting and energizing eventually becomes grating and irritating.
The narrative advances through a series of conferences that would more accurately be called confrontations. They ostensibly introduce the really important product launches in Jobs’ career, starting with the original, ultimately unsuccessful Macintosh computer and ending with the revolutionary iMac.
But these sections are just backdrop to introduce the opponents and wars in Jobs’ professional career. We never get to the actual speeches. All the action takes place backstage, in the moments leading up to the events, with Jobs — flanked by his perpetually out of breath marketing chief, or walking conscience, Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet) — taking up his cudgel against one opponent after another, from longtime business partner and engineer Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen) to one-time Apple Chief Executive John Scully (Jeff Daniels).
Everything for Jobs is a tooth-and-nail fight to have things his way. Human nature is “something to be overcome,” he says. The film would be easy to recommend if it were only half as long or maybe half as aggressive. The second hour doesn’t falter in any way other than by giving us more of the same; more great performance and staging, yes, but also more bickering and brow-beating. You start to feel like one of Jobs’ employees, willing to do or say anything just to get him to stop yelling at you.
And what of those wonderful toys that sprang from all this combat? Whatever role Jobs had in designing and giving Apple devices to the world, the movie either finds uninteresting or has decided to leave to other biographies and films. All you get from “Steve Jobs” in that regard are asides and quick peeks at museum pieces: a glimpse at the first Mac Paintbrush program; a brief unveiling of an original iMac; mention of the kernel for the idea of the iPod.
“Steve Jobs” is relentlessly interested in the man, not his machines. It believes, perhaps, that you can understand the revolution only by taking a cold hard look at the revolutionary. The ending is somewhat ambiguous, a bookend to the movie’s opening, in which Arthur C. Clarke imagines in archival footage a future world set free by the personal computer. “But what of relationships?” an interviewer asks. The film then sets about to answer, but you have to look carefully, especially in Jobs’ most triumphant moments, with Lisa a mere spectator. (R) 122 min. S