If we absolutely must have Biopics of Great Men™, the least we can hope for is that they all try as hard as Steve Jobs. It is a film that is not-great in many ways and actively broken in at least a couple, but as whipped together by screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (and oh my word, this is the most tangibly screenwriter-as-auteur film in a very long time - more on that presently), at least it's not a cradle-to-grave snapshot of the branding-savvy marketing genius and huckster god Steve Jobs, played with surprising fidelity by Michael Fassbender - "surprising" in that Fassbender looks and even acts no more like Jobs than any randomly selected white man would tend to do.

In fact, the most conspicuous thing about Steve Jobs is how defiantly non-biopic-ish its structure is. As written, this is the closest that Sorkin (whose career began in theater, let's recall) has come to giving us a straight-up play in place of a movie; it's a terribly blunt three-act piece in which events unfold in real time for approximately forty-minute chunks, separated from each other by years. Those events being three keynote speeches at three major product reveals over Jobs's famous career: the Apple Macintosh in January, 1984; the NeXT Computer in October, 1988; and the Apple iMac in May, 1998. Or rather, the immediate run-up to those keynotes. In the true fashion of the man who gave us The West Wing, the film's primary narrative focus is on the process of getting a speech ready in the last minutes before it's time to go live, with all the mercurial conflicts of personality and the hundred tiny last-minute decisions involved. Sorkin habitués will be both unsurprised and pleased to know that these decisions are often made by people who are walking and talking at the same time.

This structure - easily the best thing about Steve Jobs, up to and including yet another performance where Fassbender casually proves that he's the literal best actor - lets the film indulge in the laziest of biopic clichés with terrific freshness. By hopping years at a time and refusing to budget from its real-time conceit except in the case of a simply awful flashback during the 1988 sequence, the film gets to indicate the presence of grand life-defining arcs without having to tediously spell out the process by which Jobs evolves and grows; and given that the arc in question is a greatly trite affair in which Jobs grows to accept the existence of his illegitimate daughter Lisa (played by Makenzie Moss, Ripley Sobo, and Perla Haney-Jardine at 5, 9, and 19, respectively), finding ways of expressing anything resembling love for her in his imperious, arrogant way, it's nice that we don't have to watch it play out in detail. The same holds true for all of Jobs's other symbolically-laden acquaintances: marketing executive and Jobs's good conscience, Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet, giving the film's best performance outside of her amazingly inconsistent Polish accent); Apple CEO and traitorous father figure John Sculley (Jeff Daniels); and most especially fellow garage-techie Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), creator of the sturdy and unimaginative Apple II, the pragmatic realist who keeps spoiling Jobs's messianic fantasies about re-defining personal computing in his own image.

The snapshot-style portrait of the haughty Jobs keeps Steve Jobs from being as utterly schematic as the broad plot sketch "a giant asshole becomes incrementally less of an asshole by virtue of learning to treat his biological daughter with something less than toxic contempt" would indicate, but the reality of the thing is that its human dimension is still the weakest. In Sorkin's script for The Social Network - which would already be impossible to avoid thinking about even if the films didn't share one of America's tiny number of brand-name screenwriters - the brittleness of the characters was tied to theme and drawn out by director David Fincher, who shares with the writer a love of the way that characters function as cogs in procedural mechanisms. Steve Jobs wants, or at least it ends like it wants, a much warmer story of human beings learning from their mistakes, which may or may not be the influence of director Danny Boyle, a sentimentalist through-and-through (something Sorkin at times attempts to be, never with success). Certainly, the film is at its most convincing when it attends directly to the wearying grind of trying to mount a major tech keynote, and doing it around the snappish figure of a conceptual genius who has a literally tragic level of awareness of his own genius. And it is third-best when it it indulges in its cutesy-strained metaphor for how the men who make groundbreaking computer technology, like, are their computers, man. (Second-best, of course, is when it serves as a delivery system for Sorkinesque zingers, of which my personal favorite is "God sent His only son on a suicide mission, but we like Him anyway because He made trees"). It is certainly not best when it belabors Jobs's relationship to Lisa, a sensitive dance that Sorkin can't write and Fassbender never quite figures out how to play - he's great when he's bluntly talking over the little girl's head right to her face, and much less so when plucking at the irritated confusion of the father of a resentful teen. But there we are.

This is Sorkin's film every inch, and Boyle's film hardly ever: the only moments that feel like anything else in the director's canon are, maybe coincidentally, it's very worst, when the gaps between years are covered in audio-visual-textual montages that serve mostly to stomp heavily on the delicacy of the real-time storytelling. Which is different than saying that it doesn't feel directed at all: in fact, given the unabashed staginess of the writing, it takes quite a sure-footed director to make the film feel this much like a movie and not a transposed play. This is most famously done with film stock: Boyle and cinematographer Alwin H. Küchler shoot the 1984 material on 16mm, the 1988 material on 35mm, and the 1998 material digitally, an evolution from rough-and-tumble "let's get this fucker done" rawness through polish and on to terrifying post-human technical sleekness that maps the history of Jobs himself, if not necessarily these three exact plot beats.

In a less broadly heralded way, Boyle also keeps the longish film moving about at a snappy pace by carefully managing the balance between characters, both in the framing and in the rhythm of a scene; even when several people are onscreen at once, Steve Jobs has the flow and punch of a two-hander, with Boyle and the actors moving swiftly through dialogue and an ever-fluctuating series of interpersonal conflicts. Steve Jobs does not linger on things, instead racing as hard as it can and thus giving us something very like the same feeling of hectic stress that the characters suffer from, so good for it.

It's bright and entertaining, as a result of all this, and the Fassbender-Winslet and Fassbender-Rogen scenes spark with enough actual nastiness and thoughtlessness on Fassbender's part that there's something akin to real insight into the peremptory selfishness of the man who remade the modern world in his own image because he didn't like anybody else enough to share reality with them (the most distinctive point of overlap with The Social Network). At the same time, this film's Jobs isn't necessarily any less a construction of the filmmakers than Network's Zuckerberg, and to less lacerating overall effect. How much that's Boyle pulling his punches, how much is Sorkin swinging and missing on the emotional resonance of the material, how much is the archness of the concept and organizing metaphors, I cannot say. The whole thing ends up feeling notably flimsy, whatever the reason: it's all very engaging for as long as it lasts, and startlingly unmemorable after that.