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Fresh Air

'Steve Jobs' Shrinks Its Subject To Fit Hollywood's Simplistic Template

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. Already on today's show, you've heard vintage interviews with Steve Jobs himself and with his biographer, Walter Isaacson. Now we'll hear from our film critic, David Edelstein, who has a review of the new movie about and titled, "Steve Jobs." It's written by Aaron Sorkin, directed by Danny Boyle and stars Michael Fassbender in the title role.

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: The film "Steve Jobs" consists of three clearly demarcated 45-minute acts set in 1984, 1988 and 1998, each building to a momentous product launch. The first act, the unveiling of the Apple Macintosh computer, is an amazing feat of screenwriting. Aaron Sorkin weaves in a ton of exposition, from Walter Isaacson's 20011 biography. But the film still flies along as Jobs, played by Michael Fassbender, bullies through one obstacle after another. There's so much minutia and yet so much suspense. And there are so many balls in the air. Software designer Andy Hertzfeld, played by Michael Stuhlbarg, can't guarantee the first part of the Mac demo, a smiley face saying hello, won't crash the computer, which leads Jobs to threaten to kill him. Jobs needs that human face. He tells Mac team member Joanna Hoffman, here portrayed as a kind of executive assistant and played by Kate Winslet, that it's the key to differentiating the Mac from the soulless-looking machines of Apple's competitors. The question the movie poses is whether Jobs has a human face. Famed Apple pioneer Steve Wozniak, played by Seth Rogen, pleads unsuccessfully with him to recognize publicly the team that built the Mac's predecessor, the Apple II. He also argues the closed operating system Jobs insists on is selfish, even anti-democratic. Apple CEO John Sculley, a father figure to Jobs, played by Jeff Daniels, argues that Jobs' bitterness over being adopted is warping his treatment of others.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "STEVE JOBS")

JEFF DANIELS: (As John Sculley) We've got 45 seconds. I want to use it to ask you a question. Why do people who are adopted feel like they were rejected instead of selected?

MICHAEL FASSBENDER: (As Steve Jobs) I don't feel rejected.

DANIELS: (As John Sculley) Are you sure?

FASSBENDER: (As Steve Jobs) Very sure.

DANIELS: (As John Sculley) Because it's not like the baby is born, the parents look and say, no, we're not interested in this one. On the other hand, someone did choose you.

FASSBENDER: (As Steve Jobs) It's having no control. You find out you were out of the loop when the most crucial events in your life were set in motion. As long as you have control, I don't understand people who give it up.

EDELSTEIN: In the movie, Jobs' quest for control is the principal impediment to his humanity. That's most vividly seen in what he does to his ex-girlfriend, played by Katherine Waterston, who shows up at the convention hall with her daughter, Lisa. Jobs denies paternity despite strong DNA evidence and even though he's worth hundreds of millions, won't support them. He so hates being tied down that he crushes this enchanting 5-year-old's spirit. Little of this happened the exact way it does on screen, but it's generally accurate. And it's great writing, playwriting as much a screenwriting, though with very cinematic flashbacks and a camera that trails the characters in the manner of "Birdman." Director Danny Boyle doesn't bring his own point of view the way David Fincher introduced all kinds of alienation effects into another Sorkin script, "The Social Network." But Boyle keeps the traffic flowing. I wish I could tell you what follows is as great, but Act II is just OK and Act III, downright lousy. Sorkin has said he had a hard time liking Jobs until he got to know Jobs' daughter, a major figure in the film. I got a sinking feeling when Winslet's Joanna started makings speeches about fatherhood being Jobs' most important achievement. Then Rogan's Wozniak comes back, still yammering about the neglected Apple II team. Jeff Daniels as Sculley creeps in after a traumatic 10-year separation to reiterate his thoughts about Jobs' anger at being adopted. And gradually, a film that began with an overflowing Shakespearean quality, heralding cultural changes that would have more impact than the deaths of kings, turns banal, small. The structure is disappointing if not bogus. I miss Alex Gibney's perspective and his recent documentary, "The Man And The Machine," which made the case the man who styled himself a counterculture Zen visionary striking blows for freedom was the most ruthless kind of capitalist and That Jobs' public's search for Buddha-like inner peace let him paradoxically live with generating chaos. Michael Fassbender is a fine Jobs. He gets the lean, hungry, predatory gaze. And in the last act, he's every inch an ascetic, high-tech guru in a black turtleneck and wire rims. But he goes soft the way Sorkin does. The film "Steve Jobs" shrinks the man to fit the heartwarming Hollywood biopic template. Jobs gets publicly shamed, listens hard and becomes a better dad. Well, maybe he did. But I think it's a sad reflection on mainstream American filmmaking if that's the movie's real story.

EDELSTEIN: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine. On Monday's FRESH AIR, fashion designer Donna Karan tells us how creating clothes for herself and her friends led to her influential fashion line. She has a new memoir. And the popular comic strip "Bloom County," with Opus the penguin, is back. We talk with creator Berkeley Breathed about returning to the strip after 25 years and what Harper Lee has to do with it. Hope you can join us.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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