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Steve Jobs shows the soul in the machine

Michael Fassbender as visionary and asshole Steve Jobs.

Michael Fassbender as visionary and asshole Steve Jobs.

Hindsight may not always be 20/20 in Steve Jobs, which looks back at a man who was always looking forward. But director Danny Boyle, screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, and star Michael Fassbender create an appropriately sleek avatar for the late Apple co-founder — one that only sometimes relies on rose-tinted glasses. Like the products he helped bring to the world, this fast-moving biopic has so much surface appeal that it may take you a while to notice its flaws.

Fassbender compels as the motor-mouthed genius in question, but his performance rests on the shoulders of the supporting players he's constantly playing off of — namely Kate Winslet as trusted associate and "work wife" Joanna Hoffman; Jeff Daniels as CEO/father figure John Sculley; and Seth Rogen as Steve Wozniak, the other co-founder of Apple, whom many consider the first casualty on Jobs' path to success.

He's hardly alone. "Things don't become so because you say so," the mother of Jobs' child defiantly tells him during one of their many arguments about his paternity, which he denies against overwhelming evidence. Sorkin's rapid-fire script is full of such lines, with underlings and associates both acknowledging the innovator's mythical status and calling it into question. Steve Jobs likewise builds up this image even as it topples it—he really was that much of visionary, just as he was that much of an asshole. These traits tend to go hand-in-hand in biopics about difficult and/or brilliant figures, the kind who consider themselves surrounded by enemies without realizing they're turning that perception into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

At one point, Wozniak — who's almost universally recognized as the more knowledgeable engineer and programmer — asks why it is that no one knows his name but everyone hails his former partner as a genius. In a way, he's answering his own question. Sorkin and Boyle don't make a case for Jobs being that much more skilled on the technical front than he's usually given credit for, but they do make it plain that he knew perception was reality. He obsesses over details no one else even notices, occasionally to his detriment but more often in a way that forces people to notice him. He's a tech whisperer, a seer, and a monomaniacal visionary whose failures are as consequential as his successes.

One thing he isn't is unrepentant, at least not for long. Finally succeeding with Apple gives Jobs a moment to reflect on his personal (read: paternal) failures. His relationship with his daughter Lisa — court-ordered in the first act, reluctant in the second, reconciled in the third — provides Steve Jobs with a vital emotional through-line that reminds us there may be a soul in the machine after all.

As thrilling as the resultant monologues and verbal sparring are, they're also essentially the only component part. Steve Jobs is set during three different product launches — the original Macintosh in 1984, NeXT Black Cube in 1988, and tide-turning iMac in 1998 — with each of the three acts taking place largely in real time. As this structural conceit doesn't allow for much breathing room, Sorkin packs every minute with as many quotable quips as humanly possible. (A typically Sorkinian standout that only makes slightly more sense in context: "Coach lands on the runway at the exact same time as first class.") Almost no one in Steve Jobs talks like a real person, which is the main reason it's so entertaining on a moment-to-moment basis.

Each of these sequences is essentially a post-mortem talking around as much action as it shows. Brief flashbacks fill in certain gaps, but otherwise we know about key events in Jobs' life only through the way he talks about them. We don't know when or how Jobs officially recognized Lisa as his own or why he left college after one semester. We see point A and point B, but not how he got from one to the other. It's a limitation even Sorkin can't fully work around, never allowing him to widen the movie's scope as much as he'd clearly like.

Even so, his control over a medium that almost never belongs to the screenwriter remains remarkable. There's both an immediacy and an urgency to nearly every single line of dialogue; you hang on Jobs' every word just as the people around him do. Sorkin's skill here is to show the one-track mind of his subject and all the facets he funneled into it—complexity goes in, user-friendly simplicity comes out. "People don't know what they want until I show it to them," he says in an expression of cynical narcissism that he did a pretty damn good job of proving true.

That cynicism prevents us from getting as close to Fassbender's Jobs as you did to, say, Jesse Eisenberg's Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network—not that you necessarily want to. His every act, especially the more dubious ones, seems driven by a fundamental yearning that encases him in a shield of his own making and makes him unreachable. Steve Jobs gives no indication that its subject had any real affection for his customers, whose built-in glitches he sought to overcome. That he turned to his machines for the same escape from reality so many of us seek suggests he may have been more like us than he cared to admit.