"We'll know soon enough whether you're Leonardo da Vinci or just think you are," Steve Wozniak says in "Steve Jobs," Danny Boyle's compelling study of genius and gracelessness. Wozniak, a co-founder of Apple Inc., played by an earnest Seth Rogen, is speaking to his rather more famous colleague, and his choice of analogy is apt. Jobs was also a Renaissance man -- inventor, entrepreneur, designer. Somehow, though, we think of him as an artist.
Starring a finely calibrated Michael Fassbender in the title role, "Steve Jobs" asks whether Jobs' brilliance excuses his personal failings, a question we wouldn't normally ask about a CEO. Because Jobs' products have been so life-changing -- and so mesmerizingly cool-looking -- he's risen to a whole different status. "Steve Jobs," written by Aaron Sorkin ("The Social Network") from Walter Isaacson's authorized biography, is neither hagiography nor hatchet job, but a look at the deeply flawed human who led us into the computer age.
"Steve Jobs" is broken into three acts centered on momentous product launches in San Francisco: 1984's Macintosh (driven by Ridley Scott's groundbreaking "1984" television spot), 1988's cube-shaped NeXT Computer (a flop) and 1998's iMac, the forerunner of today's Apple desktops. Boyle visually establishes each time and place -- grainy 16 mm film for the first act, crisp digital for the third -- while the actors provide the drama.
Most of that comes from Jobs' daughter, Lisa Brennan, played by three actresses but most movingly by Ripley Sobo as a precocious 9-year-old. Jobs' attitude toward her begins as denial (in a remarkably nasty scene with her mother, played by Katherine Waterston) but ends as something very different. Other characters recur -- Kate Winslet is the outspoken Apple marketing chief Joanna Hoffman, while an excellent Jeff Daniels brings new shadings to Apple's vilified former CEO John Sculley -- but Lisa is the moral and emotional crux of "Steve Jobs." Without her, this would be merely a fast, fun, wonky whirlwind through Apple history.
Any Aaron Sorkin movie, no matter who the director, invariably becomes an Aaron Sorkin movie, and "Steve Jobs" is the Sorkiniest yet. His dense, information-rich dialogue can be thrilling and poetic but also preachy and pat. Still, "Steve Jobs" does exactly what it set out to do, allowing us to regard an almost godlike figure -- immortal still, thanks to iPods and iPhones -- with a mix of awe and sympathy.