By Melissa Agar
Jobs (Open Road Films, 2013) – Director: Joshus Michael Stern. Writer: Matt Whiteley. Cast: Ashton Kutcher, Dermot Mulroney, Josh Gad, Lukas Haas, Matthew Modine, J.K. Simmons, Lesley Ann Warren, & Ron Eldard. Color, 128 minutes.
In 1991, I was a junior in college, and as Christmas approached, I convinced my parents that the only thing standing between a Phi Beta Kappa key and me was a computer. I reasoned that if I had a computer in my dorm room rather than having to go to the campus “Mac Lab,” I would be less likely to procrastinate and would turn in better quality work, ultimately leading to a healthier, happier grade point average. Despite the fact that the price of a Mac was pushing $1,500, my parents somehow made it happen, and I returned from winter break with a Macintosh Classic II. The computer, unfortunately, wasn’t enough to get me that Phi Beta Kappa key, but that little Mac did mark the beginning of my love of and dependence on computers.
While watching Jobs, the Kutcher biopic of Apple’s founder and visionary Steve Jobs, you can’t help but be struck by how much Apple has changed our lives over the course of a couple decades. After a prologue where Jobs presents the first iPod to his staff in 2001 (a scene, I will admit, that brought tears to my eyes as the piece of technology in my life that I love more than anything is my iPod), we travel back to the 1970’s where a young Jobs is hanging around the Reed College campus sampling classes despite having dropped out. Without being tied to credit requirements and majors, Jobs is able to dabble at will – popping in on a calligraphy class one day and checking out an electronics class another.
After a jaunt through India with friend Daniel Kottke (Haas), Jobs lands a job at Atari where he proves to be a smelly iconoclast unable to function with the team dynamic. He is assigned a solo project to develop what would become Breakout; when he runs into problems with the hardware design, he calls in his friend Steve Wozniak (Gad) for help. He finds out that Wozniak is working on a computer system that he can hook up to his television. Woz doesn’t have any grand vision outside of the fact that he thinks it would be pretty cool to have, but Jobs sees more and convinces his friend to join him in developing a personal computer system for the average person, and thus Apple Computer is born. As the company takes off, Jobs’s stubborn focus and seeming lack of loyalty alienates those who helped birth the company, including Woz and eventually the Apple board of directors who fire Jobs shortly after the launch of the original Macintosh. Jobs eventually returns to the company and leads its rebirth in the late 1990s, although the film ends just as Jobs is instated as the interim CEO, a job that would become permanent until his 2011 death.
Of course, the biggest obstacle facing Jobs is its inevitable comparison to 2010’s The Social Network. It’s a natural comparison, and despite the fact that Jobs has the grander and ultimately more important story to tell, it comes out as the lesser film. If only Aaron Sorkin and David Fincher had chosen to tell Jobs’s story rather than Mark Zuckerberg, there could have been a great film here. Instead, Jobs’s story fell into the hands of writer Whiteley (in his only credited screenplay) and director Stern (whose only other major work was 2008’s Swing Vote). Whiteley’s script relies too heavily on syrupy, inspirational platitudes as Jobs lays out his vision and rallies his troops. It also skims over far too many moments and periods in Jobs’s life that seem important to the overall narrative. There is a great, important story to tell here about how a band of misfits came together to change lives through technology, and there were definite moments when I was moved by what was happening on screen, but those moments were rooted in my own sentimentality rather than the power of its portrayal on screen.
We see Jobs at his lowest moment with his ouster from Apple in 1985, but then we jump ahead nearly a decade to see a rather zen-like Jobs working in his garden before revealing to his wife (a woman we have never seen before) that he has been contacted by Apple to be a consultant as the company tries to pull itself out of the financial tailspin it entered in the mid-1990’s. We are told in passing about his founding and sale of NeXT to Apple, but that’s about the extent of it. We get the fall but don’t get a real sense of how he managed to recover from being forced out of his own company. It’s like a crucial act in the Jobs story is missing, which makes his return to Apple just slightly less meaningful.
It doesn’t help that the Steve Jobs we’re given is a complicated and often unlikable protagonist. I applaud the script for refraining from the hero worship that a film like this could have dealt in. Heaven knows there is an entire “Cult of Jobs” out there that will likely blanch at their hero’s faults being on display. This Jobs is often duplicitous and self-centered. More than once, we see him stab a supposed friend in the back, whether it is cutting the original technicians who helped build the original Apple I out of stock options or breaking up with his girlfriend when she tells him she is pregnant and denying paternity of the child she is carrying. The script doesn’t find many moments that help make sense of the adoration Jobs instills in his Apple employees even in the face of his often rage-filled encounters with his designers. The Jobs who returns to Apple seems a bit less prickly but outside of him encouraging the development of what will become the iMac, we get precious little of that Jobs before the end credits roll. The script relies on its audience to recognize the iMac, remember how it became the “hot” computer to own and subsequently put Apple back on the map, and connect the dots between that sketch Jobs is shown to the eventual development of the iPod, iPhone, and iPad that would cement Apple’s role as the dominant technological force in our lives.
Despite some pretty significant script issues, the film does have strengths. Kutcher gives a natural performance as Jobs, capturing many of Jobs’s ticks and mannerisms, and a great cast, particularly Gad’s wry, goofy Wozniak, supports him. Credit, too, goes to the art, costume, and makeup design that creates a cinematic time machine through the 1970s and early 1980s. Like last year’s Argo, there is an attention to little details that gives a beautiful sense of reality. Just seeing some of those old computers is a pretty incredible experience.
In the end, Jobs is a lot like that first Mac Classic I owned back in 1991. It’s a little clunky and slow in parts. It is a great idea hampered by operational challenges – namely a relatively inexperienced director and screenwriter. It’s lacking in a lot of flash and color. It has so much potential that never quite comes to fruition; despite its best intentions, it never fulfills its promise. Jobs is a good movie that could have been great, and its subject matter deserves greatness.