There are no iPhones or iPads seen in "Jobs," Joshua Michael Stern’s biopic of the late Apple guru. The latest product in the company’s line seen is the iPod, which is introduced to the public in the film’s opening sequence as if it were a technological advancement equal to solving world hunger. His high-minded rhetoric seems a bit overblown: Get a grip - it’s a device that plays the Beach Boys. Still its importance is one of the reasons why Steve Jobs is the Thomas Edison of the leisure class. He transformed the way we look at the technological advances (most significantly the home computer) of the late 20th century and made them, well, cool. He was a nerd and a snob.
And he was a player, it turns out, in the corporate world. At first "Jobs" feels like it might be an exercise in hagiography. The opening sequence, which takes place in 2001, has a the feel of an infomercial about Jobs (played with much intensity by Ashton Kutcher), the humble visionary. But as the film unfolds, he’s revealed to be as ruthless as Donald Trump, firing employees in a moment of pique when they don’t share his enthusiasm or vision, or cutting off the very individuals that helped him when Apple Computer was headquartered in his father’s garage. About midway through, it is apparent that to work for Jobs you needed to drink the Kool Aid and be amongst the best and the brightest. Slackers, such as his college best-bud Daniel Kottke (an excellent Lukas Haas) who help in the formation of the Jobs’ empire, are disposed of as if they were office temps. He is anything but a nice guy.
This thread gives "Jobs" a tension as it follows the rise of Apple from its humble beginnings to the giant it is today. The film doesn’t touch upon its greatest period of growth (the past ten years); instead it flashes back to tell the story from the 1970s to the turn of the last century. Jobs is a most complicated person, and it’s hard for director Stern or newbie screenwriter Matt Whiteley to capture his many facets in a two-hour movie. You get the impression that some of the script ended up on the cutting room floor.
Instead, what he offers is something that falls between a tribute and a cautionary tale. This Jobs has vision, but he’s also a cold prick and an unlikely business leader that beats the suits at their own game. Much of the script focuses on Jobs ups-and-downs with Apple Management, his casual, if volatile management style, and his quest for perfection at all costs, which causes much friction in the board room. Jobs’ struggles are never as compelling as those experienced by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in "The Social Network" - this is a longer, more fragmented account of the wheelings and dealings of computer nerds and corporate sharks. Still, the message of both films is pretty much the same: in the world of business, personal issues are the elephant in the room that no one talks about.
At its best, "Jobs" is an ambivalent character study; but at its worst it finds eloquence in Jobs’ New Age rhetoric about his vision. There’s a scene towards the end when Jobs is being wooed by Apple management to come back. He goes into a R&D lab and confronts one of the workers - a creative type - about why he works for a corporation that has all but morphed into a copy of other computer giants, such as IBM. The man responds that his love of Apple comes from believing in Jobs’ vision of using technology to change the way we look at things. Before you know it, he’s sketching a model of the early iMacs. The moment, with its quiet, stirring music underneath, is meant to validate Jobs; but it feels false: another case of someone drinking the Kool-Aid.
Jobs is, of course, vindicated. His successors at Apple, including Mike Markkula (Dermot Mulroney) and John Sculley (Matthew Modine), are dispatched with golden parachutes tinged with public humiliation, when he’s brought back on board. In this regard, the movie functions well as a sleek biopic, the kind that would be right at home on HBO, where, eventually, this film will end up. It’s the kind of movie that you might stop on while channel-surfing and watch because the subject matter is compelling and the packaging of it competent enough. Kutcher proves to be a good choice to play Jobs, if only for meta-reasons. He, too, is a complicated mogul quite adept at showing divergent facets of his personality to the world. He also, as seen in the final credits, bears an uncanny resemblance to Jobs, who died 2011 at 56.
Physically he suggests Jobs through a slumping, clumsy physicality; emotionally he’s arrogant and downright nasty, as when he throws his pregnant girlfriend out in an early scene. Early on one of his bosses at a computer gaming company says to him, "You’re damn good, but you’re an asshole;" and that pretty much sums up this film. How he becomes the loving family man we see him morph into remains a mystery. In focusing on the corporate story, Stern and Whiteley bypass the human one, save to show Jobs as unable to deal with serious personal issues as a young man. This leaves a hole in the portrait that no amount of good acting can save. In the end "Jobs" offers the portrait of a computer geek out to change the world. We know he did it, just who he was remains a mystery.