What you have to understand is that Jobs is not really a bio-pic of Steve Jobs, creator of Apple.
Jobs is a superhero flick. Moreover, it’s an origins film.
What gave it away was a key scene about midway through: Jobs and his sidekick Woz have just procured their mojo money from angel investor Mike Markula, enabling them to flee their native garage and build a new world, called Apple. The year is 1977. But the gods rarely deliver good news without balancing it out with some “bad”: Steve’s girlfriend is pregnant. Steve is about to be a father twice over: of Apple, and Lisa. (As we will see, the two will converge.)
But Jobs does not take bad news lightly. In fact, he does not take it at all. He accuses his girlfriend of cheating on him and simply refuses to acknowledge any responsibility. The child simply is not his. Even though she is.
It is at this moment that Steve Jobs becomes the superhero he was born to be. The camera does this wide-angle zoom on his face, distorting the image, just as Jobs’s mind delighted in distorting reality, a process that came to be known as the Steve Jobs Reality Distortion Field. It was his superpower. It enabled him to bend time, space, and the hearts and minds of those around him to his will. Facts became lies; dreams became reality.
Jobs looks long and hard at himself in the mirror. He fixes his hair. He adjusts his jeans. He begins to realize the look that would be his signature. He is — not Batman, but Jobs.
Steve Wozniak, his faithful sidekick, comes along on his adventures, providing the technical expertise and basic common decency that allows this union to function at all. While there certainly would have been no iMac, or iPod, or iPad, or iPhone without Steve Jobs, what the film also demonstrates is that there would have been no Jobs without Woz. Although whether Jobs truly grasps this is never made clear.
As superhero flicks go, there’s not a lot of action, which is forgivable given the nature of his mission—to “put a dent in the universe,” only with his aesthetic panache. What’s unforgivable is how pedestrian this screenplay is, how colorless the dialogue, how TV-Movie-of-the-Weekish the curriculum vitae character of the narrative.
Steve goes to Reed college. Gets high. Learns calligraphy. Becomes a pop Buddhist.
Steve gets a job at Atari, in which his assholishness is called out for the very first time.
Steve gets Woz to create a video game for Atari but claims it as his own and stiffs Woz of most of the money he was paid for it.
Steve inspires. Steve alienates. Steve yells. Steve cries. It’s all or nothing—you’re either under the dome with him, in which his ideas are like 360-degree IMAX films, all you can see in your field of vision—or you’re a loser, a traitor, a drain on his energy, his power.
In short, his kryptonite.
Steve had origins issues of his own, what with being adopted and all, which makes his abandonment of his daughter all the more creepy.
And yet Steve spends way too much of Apple’s resources on the Lisa, a personal PC that, apparently, is his way of slowly integrating the reality of his daughter Lisa into his life. (He will finally acknowledge paternity and create some kind of personal relationship with the flesh and blood person, but we’re left to assume that this is the result of some kind of maturing process, which is never dramatized or at least explained.)
The Lisa is a bomb. The Macintosh, an all-in-one, has potential, but it has drained too much money from the Apple II (the standard tower/monitor/keyboard/mouse config), which happens to be the only machine actually bringing money into the company, accounting for 70 percent of revenues. Jobs is finally forced out of the company by the very man he brought in to be its CEO—John Sculley, Pepsi Challenge marketing wiz.
Steve starts NeXT. It gets bought by Apple. We’re never told whether NeXT ever produced a product worth a damn. We’re told nothing about Pixar.
We are told that under a succession of buffoonish CEOs, by the late ’90s, Apple is about to go under, until Jobs is wooed back.
And gives them the iPod.
What was the almost preternatural source of this “vision” that forced Steve Jobs to go where no entrepreneur had gone before? What compelled him to create a market for a product before anyone knew they wanted it? What role did Bill Gates play in all this, other than to be accused of stealing the Macintosh software?
Dunno. These are superhero mysteries. Or superneurotic mysteries, perhaps to be told better by Aaron Sorkin in his adaptation of the bestselling Walter Isaacson bio. (It is said that Sorkin will break the story down into three periods of Jobs’s life—three acts, as it were—and probably, hopeful, drill down into the minutiae of Jobs’s process to open a window into what his genius actually was.)
So, what about Ashton Kutcher? Not bad. Or let me say, as good as the mediocre material would allow him to be. I always found him to be a charming comic actor (That ’70s Show), so I wasn’t anticipating a “Lindsay Lohan does Elizabeth Taylor” disaster here. He certainly has nothing to be ashamed of. He managed to get the inflections down, although the Jobs “gait” seemed a little forced, almost Chaplinesque at times. And the film ends in 2001, so it never touches on Jobs’s later cancer woes and what effect that may have had on his temperament.
The standout performance, if we can say there is one, belongs to Josh Gad as Woz. Wozniak comes off as the brilliant and kindhearted guy he is usually portrayed to be. He is Jobs’s heart—who literally cries at what his friend has become in donning the guise of SuperJobs. (One significant omission in this regard is that after Jobs decided to stiff early Applers from stock options, because in his view they were no longer key performers, Woz gave them a cut of his own shares, an act of largesse Wozniak points to in his own mini-review of the film.)
The directing is unpretentious to the point of being lackluster. Dermot Mulroney is uninteresting as Markula, another man it’s hard to figure out—did he really share Jobs’s vision? If so, why did he sell him out when the pressure was on and he had assured Jobs he wouldn’t? Who knows. Matthew Modine plays John Sculley as a serious businessman who was simply unprepared for the Jobs Reality Distortion Field, and so kept defaulting to the kind of corporate decision making you would expect to find at, say, Pepsi.
“Hiring you was the biggest mistake of my life,” Jobs tells him.
No shit, Sherlock. But who told you to take the company public?
If you love the story of the birth of the PC, if you love the story of monomaniacs and scary geniuses and dreamers who can will their dreams into three dimensions, Jobs is a mildly entertaining contribution to the Jobs legend. It doesn’t add much we didn’t already know. But maybe what we know will never explain a guy like Steve Jobs—superhero to a generation of geeks and freaks.
Just as a sled was never about to explain a guy like Charles Foster Kane, who thought it would be fun to run a newspaper.