In the opening minutes of Joshua Michael Stern’s Jobs, the titular entrepreneur, played by Ashton Kutcher, addresses an almost disturbingly receptive audience from a sleek white stage at Apple headquarters. It’s 2001, and he’s telling them about a revolutionary new product the company is ready to launch. “It’s a music player,” he announces—and before he can even get to the part about how this new device will put a thousand songs in your pocket, there’s a chorus of oohs and aahs. Soon after, before Jobs has demonstrated or even extensively described the capacities of the iPod, he takes a small white rectangle out of his pocket and vaguely hoists it in the crowd’s direction as everyone assembled bursts into a boisterous standing ovation.
The disproportion between the impressiveness of Jobs’ presentation and the enthusiasm of the audience’s response in that first scene is so marked you can’t help but wonder whether what seems to be going on really is. (Not that factual accuracy is everything, but it’s worth noting that the iPod’s actual reception at the time was far less rapturous.) Are we witnessing the triumphant unveiling of a world-changing product by a visionary inventor (a literal reading that the swelling music on the soundtrack would seem to ratify)? Or is this a deliberately exaggerated satire of sycophantic corporate culture, or maybe of our culture’s blind worship of tech entrepreneurship? Or wait—is Jobs only imagining that the crowd is cheering him so loudly? Is this some kind of dream sequence he’s about to wake up from so that the real movie can begin?
A few minutes in, though, as we flash back to a much younger Steve padding barefoot around the campus of Reed College, all those bothersome queries about tone and point of view can be put to bed. It soon becomes clear that this is the real movie, with scene upon scene that feels as flatly hagiographic (and curiously off) as that opening. It’s a film whose plea to the audience resembles Jobs’ appeal to the crowd in that iPod-unveiling scene: “Believe this is important and exciting,” it asks, “because I say so.”
What’s frustrating about this approach is that so much of Jobs’ life story—not to mention the story of the literally world-changing devices he helped to invent—really was fascinating. His adoption by the Jobs family after being given up as an infant by his single mother (though his parents later remarried), and his later discovery of his sister, the novelist Mona Simpson. His maladjustment to ordinary life, whether at Reed, where he dropped out and audited classes for free after six months, or at Atari, where he got his first job designing games and immediately gained a reputation as an anti-social, unshowered smartass. His return to Apple as CEO after having been forced to step down in a humiliating corporate ouster. Jobs touches at least briefly on most of these developments (though not all—perhaps for legal reasons, the fate of Steve’s birth parents and the existence of his long-lost sister are never mentioned). But the scene it returns to almost fetishistically is the one in which Jobs dazzles an adoring crowd (or sometimes just a few clustered acolytes) with the Zen-like simplicity of his vision.
The dramatic core of Jobs—and one of the few real relationships in what’s too often a one-man show of a movie—is the long working partnership between Jobs and Steve Wozniak, the engineer who almost singlehandedly built the motherboard for the original Apple prototype. As played (quite wonderfully) by Josh Gad, Woz is a squat, cherubic tech geek with a passionate love for his work, an unworldly type who would never suspect a friend of dissembling (as Jobs does) what a project pays in order to keep the lion’s share of the cash. The movie’s most entertaining stretch takes place in the late ’70s, when the young, scruffy Jobs and Woz set up an operation too small to be called a startup out of Jobs’ father’s garage. Helped by some neighborhood gearheads, they make a local computer-parts dealer a barely realizable promise to have a full shipment of hand-built computers ready in 60 days. In the car on the way to yet another fruitless meeting with a venture capitalist, Woz and Jobs debate what to call their emerging company. Steve mocks Woz’s suggestion, “Enterprise Computers,” for its Trekkie-ness, but Steve’s first idea, “Apple,” is (true to this movie’s worshipful spirit) immediately hailed for its freshness and brilliance.
The garage gang does eventually find its investor, the retired tech millionaire Mike Markkula (Dermot Mulroney), and the second half of the movie documents the relatively rapid rise of Apple from its humble origins to become a player (and, eventually, the player) in the emerging personal computer industry. Along the way, we start to see Steve in a less flattering (though equally un-nuanced) light: He impregnates his girlfriend (played by Ahna O’Reilly), then refuses to be any part of the child’s life. He fires key engineers in fits of rage when they can’t deliver on his impossible standards and deadlines. When the company goes public to wild success, Jobs refuses to issue stock options to his college friend Daniel Kottke (Lukas Haas), who’s been part of the Apple team since the start. Eventually Woz, disillusioned by the way the company is changing, regretfully tenders his resignation—and, it’s suggested in the movie’s most touching scene, desists from any hope of friendship with the increasingly remote Steve.
The last act consists mainly of corporate drama around the 1985 firing of Jobs as CEO of Apple, the subsequent appointment of John Sculley (Matthew Modine) and a series of other unsuccessful leaders in his place, and finally Jobs’ triumphant return to the company in 1997. In a bizarre ellipsis, all the events in Jobs’ personal life during this hiatus—including his marriage, the birth of three children, and his reconciliation with his estranged first daughter—happen off-screen, so we’re abruptly presented with a portrait of Jobs as a mellow, garden-tending family man without any hint as to what in his outlook or character might have changed to make that life possible.
Jobs is so grievously misconceived from the ground up that the question of whether Ashton Kutcher is good in the lead role is difficult to answer. He certainly looks surprisingly like the iconic, turtleneck-clad inventor, especially when he’s given the receding hairline and trim salt-and-pepper beard of Jobs’ later years. And he gets many of the gestures right, including a distinctive stiff-armed walk that gets more stoop-shouldered as his character ages. In fact, I would say that overall Kutcher acquits himself admirably, especially when asked to do things no actor should have to—like blissfully air-conducting a Bach concerto that he hears only in his own mind while tripping on acid.
But the Steve Jobs Kutcher plays in this movie isn’t a recognizable human being with sufferings and motivations and fears and desires; he’s a PowerPoint presentation of a man—a bulleted checklist of biopic clichés, inspirational slogans, and advertising taglines. The movie ends with a post-1997 Jobs in a sound studio, reading some words into a microphone that most viewers will recognize: It’s the copy to the “Think Different” ad campaign that followed hard upon Jobs’ return to Apple. (“Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do. ...”) Jobs’ voice quavers with emotion, but the audience remains unmoved. We saw that Apple commercial already. It was a lot better than this one.