Prior to unveiling the iMac, Apple Computer adopted the slogan “think different.”
Just as this memorable statement flips the finger at grammatical conventions, the enthralling “Steve Jobs” takes a comparable approach to the Hollywood biopic.
Oscar-winning director Danny Boyle (“Slumdog Millionaire”) and writer Aaron Sorkin (“The Social Network”) jettison the backstory and ignore the tragic coda of the late computer pioneer. Instead, they focus on three events that unfold in real time like a stage play. Each finds Jobs (an impeccable Michael Fassbender) readying for his latest product launch.
We meet the Apple co-founder in 1984 as he’s pacing backstage at a Silicon Valley auditorium minutes before introducing the Macintosh. Following his company’s watershed Super Bowl commercial, the expectations for his revolutionary desktop device are overwhelming, and he’s struggling to even make it say “hello” at this demo.
“The two most significant events of the 20th century,” he boasts, “the Allies win the war, and this.”
Jobs frets, whines, berates, gloats and philosophizes during encounters with his colleagues. (For Sorkin, talkiness is next to godliness.)
Marketing head Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet) serves as his field general, the one person able to say anything she wants to the volatile executive. Others less adept at adjusting to his behavior include shaggy co-founder Steve Wozniak (played with more sincerity than usual by comedian Seth Rogen), harried software developer Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg) and fatherly CEO John Sculley (Jeff Daniels of Sorkin’s “The Newsroom”).
In addition to his launch-related challenges, Jobs grapples with ex-girlfriend Chrisann (Katherine Waterston) and their young daughter, Lisa (played heart-tuggingly well by different actresses in each segment), whom he openly asserts is not his child. Chrisann wants the multimillionaire’s support to get them off welfare; he just wants to make sure the friggin’ computer says hello.
The structure of “Steve Jobs” is theatrical (one location for each of three acts) and narratively convenient (all the characters converge backstage in succession, one of many journalistic licenses taken by Sorkin), but the cumulative effect becomes hypnotic. As the timeline progresses from the Macintosh to the NeXT in 1988 to the iMac in 1998, Boyle brandishes his own cinematic upgrades. He shoots the first sequence on 16mm, the second on 35mm and the finale on digital as a subtle way to underscore the technological advances.
Meanwhile, Sorkin’s screenplay (based on the book by Walter Isaacson) unleashes his signature machine-gun dialogue. Chaos always surrounds the hero in Sorkin’s scenarios, where life-changing decisions collide with minutiae. It’s already amusing that the countdowns to these product promotions are treated with the same dramatic tension usually given to James Bond when he’s defusing a rogue nuclear device.
At the center of this chaos stands Fassbender. In just a handful of years the Irish Oscar nominee (“12 Years a Slave,” “Shame,” the last two “X-Men” flicks) has carved a place among this generation’s finest character actors. He offers a fitting blend of charisma and madness when playing Jobs. He portrays him as a dreamer. A conniver. A bastard of inglorious repute, whether sporting a youthful stoner haircut or later a beard, round specs and grandpa jeans. Jobs appears so bulletproof to the idea of not being liked that it’s hard not to like him.
The film expels a lot of energy letting him explain the motivation for seeking cultural immortality. Unfortunately, his premise is one often shared by dictators and serial killers: that the importance of their work trumps morality.
“The very nature of people is something to be overcome,” he says.
It’s up to us to decide if Jobs remains admirable or abhorrent, momentous or overinflated. It’s complicated. But “Steve Jobs” provides Hollywood’s best insight yet into this iconic figure. Unlike Jobs, the movie finds a way to “think different” without sacrificing its soul in the process.
(At the Barrywoods; expands to more theaters next Thursday night.)
Jon Niccum is a filmmaker, freelance writer and author of “The Worst Gig: From Psycho Fans to Stage Riots, Famous Musicians Tell All.”
Rated R. Time: 2:02.