I was cynical going into Jobs, the new biopic about Apple Computer’s mercurial and prickly founder. I like my iPhone as much as the next person, but I’m not a fan of the cult of entrepreneurship and unbridled freedom for the elite creative class that Steve Jobs embodied and encouraged. The film, of course, includes Jobs’ famous line about the “crazy ones” and “the misfits” who “aren’t fond of rules and have no respect for the status quo.” But when the person living that philosophy isn’t someone on society’s margins, but rather the man in charge of one of the world’s most influential corporations, that love of freedom begins to look a lot like contempt for the regulations, policies, and institutions set up to protect the people who are actually powerless and unfortunate.
At any rate, I shouldn’t have worried. In terms of visuals, editing, and music, Jobs is a slick product. But the movie is so utterly lost as to what it wants to say about its subject that it has no coherent ideological stance at all.
Rather like The Iron Lady, Jobs solves the problem of its titular character’s ugly political implications by simply ignoring the realm of the political entirely. Its story is pure struggling personality. Steve Jobs (Ashton Kutcher) is an abusive perfectionist and a selfish bastard, and to its credit Jobs does not shy away from his treatment of Apple’s employees or the monstrous way he exiles his girlfriend after she becomes pregnant. At the same time, he’s a genuinely talented designer, and uniquely gifted at recognizing the possibilities inherent in new technologies before anyone else. The film depicts Jobs not so much as a computer whiz — Apple’s cofounder, Steve Wozniak (Josh Gad) is the technical brains behind the operation — but as the company’s lead visionary and hustler-in-chief.
After Jobs and Wozniak found Apple in the garage of the former’s parents, it’s a real joy watching him work every merchant and investor in town trying to scrounge up the necessary capital and buyers. And Jobs’ best scenes show him bringing his coworkers on board with some crazy new idea, and you sense the burgeoning excitement of the possible in the room. When the older Jobs referred to the iPhone as “a tool for the soul” in the opening scene, I rolled my eyes. By the end, I understood where he was coming from.
But the paradox of how those qualities sat alongside Jobs’ darker aspects is never explored. It just lays there. After Jobs drops out of college, he mocks the “validation” and “security” a degree brings to other people. It feels like the movie agrees with him, or at least like the movie thinks it should agree with him. That attitude certainly underlies much of Jobs’ creativity and drive. But it’s also incredibly callous — a convenient stance for a man raised in the bosom of middle class Cupertino, and dismissive of the struggles of anyone who couldn’t drop out of college (much less get to college in the first place) without being utterly terrified for their future. The genius and the cruelty are both flip-sides of the same coin, but Jobs has zip to say on that potentially catastrophic fact.
As for performances, Kutcher accomplishes a convincing act of mimicry, but that’s about it. Gad is much better as Wozniak, endearingly showing the transformation from awkward computer nerd to capable adult, and he delivers a moving and cutting speech to Jobs at a critical moment.
Plot-wise, the movie feels like an adaptation of a 1,000 word obituary in the New York Times, limiting itself to the highlights. Jobs and Wozniak found Apple; investor Mike Markkula (Durmont Mulroney) comes in with a capital injection; the company rockets upwards; Jobs drives a series of ambitious projects, alienating Arthur Rock (J.K. Simmons) and John Sculley (Matthew Modine) along the way; Rock, Sculley, and Markkula eventually push him out of the company; and finally Apple goes into a tailspin and brings Jobs back. It brushes over his years in the wilderness without a thought as to what they meant to him.
What’s especially weird is the way it treats Jobs’ return as the climax. The structure of the film suggests we should view this as validation, but it feels more like Shakespearean tragedy. Jobs wreaks on his corporate board rivals the same punishment they wreaked on him. It’s not a triumph so much as a return to Jobs’ worst habits. Nary a word is said about what he accomplished with the iPhone and iMac after that return, which you’d think would be the real redemption story here.
Even more remarkably for a movie focused on personality, Jobs literally never mentions its character’s final bout with and eventually death due to cancer. For a personae so defined by a belief in limitless possibility, what must it have been like to run smack into one’s mortality like that? The film is silent on the matter. Those who read Jobs’ biography inform me the film also leaves out other details seemingly critical to the story it wants to tell: that Jobs got the name “Apple” from working at an orchard in his commune/hippie days, or that later in life he tried to make amends for abandoning his daughter.
In the end, Jobs its great to look at, and even occasionally inspiring in the moment. But it dissipates quickly into nothingness once you leave the theater.