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Now, when an Apple computer goes bad on us, we see the dreaded beachball, spinning hatefully on our screen. But since Steve Jobs begins in 1984, an older icon carries the same message: the graphic of a bomb at which older viewers will instinctively wince, glimpsed behind our man as he waits to unveil the first Apple Macintosh in Cupertino, California. This glitch sets the film in motion, Jobs (Michael Fassbender, his lack of resemblance defiant) demanding solutions from his people. Set against an anxious tick-tock soundtrack, the bomb is also a symbol for its subject: raging, haranguing, he looks set to go off before the crowd even arrives.
Fourteen years later, he creates (ish) the iMac, the machine credited with inspiring his company’s rise to omnipotence. There, in brief, is the arc of this loudly enjoyable film, unfolding over three fraught product launches (between the Macintosh and the iMac comes a middle act with Jobs exiled from Apple and pushing the NeXT Computer). The movie is directed by Danny Boyle, his work slick and pacy. But his real achievement is making cinema out of material that isn’t even a stage play as much as very expensive radio: a battery of dialogue, unbroken by reflective pauses or even, on occasion, the actors drawing breath.
Such is the mark of the film’s real mastermind: its writer Aaron Sorkin, grandmaster of backstage voyeurism, supplying the same relentless fast talk as he did The West Wing and that other portrait of tech innovation, The Social Network. The cause of the opening snafu is the Macintosh’s failure to say an audible “Hello”. “If you keep alienating people,” warns Jobs’ weary publicist Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), “there’ll be no one left to say hello to.”
You might smile at this, as without anyone for Jobs to say hello to, Sorkin too would be lost. Though Jobs gets the best lines, everyone is given a zinger if they hang around long enough. “Artists lead and hacks ask for a show of hands,” spits Jobs. “You walk around like you’ve got Can’t Lose cards,” Hoffman laments. In case he’s over-reached, Sorkin even throws in a caveat: “It sounds good but it doesn’t mean anything!”
Vigorously nodding to Citizen Kane, the script scatters Rosebuds to explain its subject’s flaws. Nearing outright villainy early on — shirking responsibility for his infant daughter — Jobs in later stages displays a certain mellowing, at least with his child. For the rest of us, the film suggests, well, that’s greatness for you. Put like that it sounds pat, but on screen, it sounds exhilarating.
The genius of Jobs finally emerges: the man who “can’t put a hammer to a nail” but sees, ahead of anyone else, that the public will embrace sleek products marketed as tools of personal liberation that in fact remove much of their personal choice. “The Mac is mine,” he points out. By the end, Jobs has been compared to Julius Caesar, da Vinci and God. In this script, that leaves him second only to Sorkin.