Immediately following the death of Apple founder and CEO Steve Jobs in late 2011, business magazines and biographers struggled to identify the source of his ingenuity and success. Moviegoers who hope to draw inspiration from the new biopic Jobs won’t discover many highly effective habits, partly because the film keeps his personal struggles at arms’ length and bypasses major portions of his life and career.
Our first glimpse of Jobs (played by Ashton Kutcher) is at an Apple town hall staff gathering in 2001. Here we see him as he often presented himself in public, wearing a turtleneck and jeans, bearded, with a gray crown of hair surrounding a receding hairline. Unfortunately, the makeup used to age up Kutcher is hideously distracting, and his reveal of the first iPod is a moment with no payoff later on.
From there, the story flashes back to 1974, when Steve Jobs was a barefoot, acid-dropping student at Reed College in Portland, Oregon. We catch glimpses of his rebellious attitude when he tells a fellow student, “the system can only produce the system,” but his drug-induced insights are reduced to one line of anger about his birth parents putting him up for adoption.
To his credit, Kutcher genuinely looks and acts the part in these early years of Jobs’ career. The steely, determined stare that we associate with Jobs is captured perfectly, along with the shaggy haircut and scraggly beard. Kutcher’s surfer-dude accent is a bit strong, though, and it’s an affectation he can’t seem to shake throughout the film.
Though we’re given a lengthy and loving introduction to Apple’s first computer, soldered in his parents’ garage, the film doesn’t spend much time highlighting the development of other products, or the impact they had in peoples’ lives. Clips of commercials, like the infamous 1984 Superbowl ad, are a replacement for the genuine emotion many people felt when they used a new Apple product for the first time. As the film marches through the 70s, 80s, and 90s, products like the Apple II, Macintosh, iMac, and even Newton are name-checked without a satisfying explanation of why they were unique.
Even though the characters in the film profess a deep love for technology, this is meant to be a story about the humans of Apple, not the computers. The film is at its best when it dwells on the relationship between Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. “Woz” enters the film early on as a geeky, yet highly talented engineer (played by Josh Gad), whose Apple computer prototype is an afterthought to his Polish Dial-A-Joke hotline. It’s Steve Jobs who realizes the device’s potential, and after letting Woz awkwardly stumble through a presentation to the Homebrew Computer Club, Jobs makes an ambitious deal to produce 50 units for a local electronics store called Byte Me. Woz, as he reveals later, just wanted to hang out and be one of the guys.
Woz’s decision to leave Apple years later is one of the most affecting moments of the film. Though Jobs is later ousted himself, his downfall seems almost inevitable after he makes friends into enemies and develops a reputation for obsessive perfection at great financial cost. Woz, by contrast, seems naively innocent, conned by his collaborator from their very first project together– creating Breakout from an off-track project at Atari.
Other supporting characters drift in and out of Jobs’ life. Two who seem like they deserve more depth include a venture capitalist who later betrays him in a board meeting vote, when it doesn’t even make a difference, and Jobs’ girlfriend, who tearfully tells him she’s pregnant. His cold-hearted response? “I’m sorry you have a problem.”
In the film, Jobs handles his incredible financial success and interpersonal relationships with less interest than he has in the number of fonts in the Lisa computer’s word processor. There’s no joy to be found in his millions of dollars, or his friends and family. Instead, he’s portrayed as a humorless manager with flashy cars and an innate clairvoyance.
Then the film skips from 1984 to 1996, the period of Jobs’ exile from Apple, and we miss what could have been the most humbling and introspective period of his life. When we see him again, he has a hunched gait, and the daughter he previously abandoned is now crashing on his couch. This seems like a missed opportunity to show his newfound humility.
When Jobs returns to Apple, he teams up with Jonathan Ives, played by the absurdly handsome Giles Matthey, to create the colorful new iMac. In these scenes, Jobs makes a pitch for elegance and art in technology, but the film itself isn’t crafted to those same demanding specifications.
The film is at its best as a period piece depicting California in the 70s and 80s, but moviegoers might expect to see more modern-day achievements, like the development of the iPod and iPhone. Steve Jobs’ well-known health problems are also ignored, even though we do see him compulsively eating fruit throughout the film. His struggle with cancer and attempts to treat it using holistic medicine are never even mentioned.
With large, fascinating portions of Jobs’ life left unexplored in the film, it’s hard to give this biopic an enthusiastic recommendation. To really learn about what made Jobs tick, you’d have to look elsewhere. The film pays homage to his entrepreneurial spirit, but the filmmakers should have gleaned a few lessons on emotionally-driven design as well.
Score: 2 out of 4