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REVIEW: 'Steve Jobs' clever, compelling as it evolves

COLIN COVERT
YorkDispatch

The clever, compelling biopic "Steve Jobs" transforms the folklore surrounding the late co-founder and CEO of Apple Inc. to fuel a magical mystery tour of three pivotal events in his life. Each breakneck act follows Jobs as he readies a different product launch over the course of 15 years.

Scenes of anxious backstage preparations bubble with Silicon Valley tech jargon as Jobs gets ready to introduce the Macintosh computer in 1984, then the NeXT cube he introduced after leaving Apple in 1988 and finally the iMac after his return in 1998.

The film evolves through a trio of visual formats across that time-traveling structure, shot in granular 16mm film for the opening act, progressing to gleaming 35mm, and climaxing in sleek, high-definition digital.

Masterfully directed by Danny Boyle, the story boils with in-the-wings turmoil like "Birdman," "The Artist" and "Love & Mercy." Each scene is a crescendo of aggressive arguments. The uber-controlling boss orders his battered, burned-out employees to about-face in ways they consider impossible. "It's like, five minutes before a launch, everybody goes to a bar and gets drunk and tells me what they really think," the disputatious Jobs complains.

But the guiding subtext of Aaron Sorkin's hyper-verbose script, and Michael Fassbender's magnetic performance owning every single scene as Jobs, isn't corporate stage jitters. It's Jobs' slipshod relationship with a visitor to each of the publicity events — his out-of-wedlock daughter Lisa.

The story carries us from the neglectful era when Jobs denied the young girl's paternity and unwillingly paid a court-ordered pittance of child support, to a grudging latter-day teenage reconciliation.

It's really a psychological docudrama about a man with a faulty emotional operating system. Fassbender plays him as a perfectionist in everything except human connections, at a time when the world falls in love with him.

Sorkin's signature fast-paced walk and talks and snarky jokes are rocketing here in hyper drive. While Jobs is the central focus of every moment, there are half a dozen demanding roles in the mix. Macintosh development lead Andy Hertzfeld ("A Serious Man's" Michael Stuhlbarg) is ordered by Jobs to make the verbally clumsy computer welcome the packed audience with a clear "Hello" in 30 minutes.

"We're not a pit crew at Daytona. This can't be fixed in seconds," the harassed designer protests. To which Jobs replies: "You didn't have seconds. You had three weeks. The universe was created in a third of that time." Hertzfeld fires back: "Well, someday you'll have to tell us how you did it."

Steve Wozniak, the engineering mastermind who created Apple's first breakthrough computers, gets a shaggy, milquetoast portrait from Seth Rogen. Though he tries to rise above sidekick status and talk Jobs down from his narcissistic heights, each of his attempts slips a noose around his own neck.

"What do you do?" Wozniak asks. "You're not an engineer. You're not a designer. You can't put a hammer to a nail. I built the circuit board. The graphical interface was stolen. So, how come, 10 times in a day, I read, 'Steve Jobs is a genius'? What do you do?"

"Musicians play their instruments," answers Jobs, living as always several steps out of reality. "I play the orchestra."

A different yet equally demanding relationship features Kate Winslet, playing Joanna Hoffman, former marketing chief of Macintosh. Jobs' beleaguered work wife defends him in every crisis. She is flabbergasted when she's ordered to bring him a new dress shirt minutes before he goes onstage. Ever loyal to the man she confesses to platonically love, his Gal Friday complies, even grabbing an iron to smooth the shirt before he slips it on. She finally stands up to Jobs, rather than for him, late in the story.

Grayer and bespectacled, Jobs is still waging war on his daughter Lisa, now a Harvard student, until Hoffman aims an ultimatum of her own against him. While Winslet mismanages the Polish immigrant's accent in several scenes, she never misses the woman's soul. Like his other alienated colleagues, she is proof of Wozniak's belief that "It's not binary. You can be decent and gifted at the same time."

Throughout the story, Jobs is in serious need of a spiritual software update. This is an impressive companion piece to Sorkin's Oscar-winning screenplay for "The Social Network," his caustic portrait of Facebook head Mark Zuckerberg. Once again it gives us a whirligig of infotainment. It's factually flawed but hits the essential target like a marksman.

Like Jobs' own legendary "reality distortion field," his near-mystical ability to convince anyone of almost anything, the film lifts us past sheer realism to higher truth.