Reduced to their elements, the stories of Apple’s Steve Jobs and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerburg are nearly identical: Visionary genius has an idea that could change the world, but he gambles his humanity in the process. As a storytelling medium, films are reductive by nature, so there was only one way "JOBS" was going to be more than a JV version of "The Social Network." But the movie opening Friday doesn’t take it.
The story of Steve Jobs is a story about iconic products; the story of "JOBS" is a story about a really angry guy.
As far as human interest stories go, Jobs’ life holds an edge to Zuckerberg’s, what with the whole being-given-up-for-adoption-at-birth thing, the collegiate drug experimentation, the wandering of India, and the early vision of personal computing – all of which the movie knocks down in the first 20 minutes through a series of cliche-ladened montages and staccato scenes. But in head-to-head competition, Jobs’ backstory – and JOBS’ story story – can’t hold a candle to the 2010 telling of the Facebook’s origin story. Zuck might have had little more than a sense of entitlement and a hoodie, but The Social Network had director David Fincher, writer Aaron Sorkin, and star Jessie Eisenberg.
Third-time director Joshua Michael Stern (Swing Vote) and first-time screenwriter Matt Whiteley position JOBS right down the middle as a redemption tale, and Ashton Kutcher plays Jobs with admirable sincerity while relying heavily enough on mimicry to distract. After the film dispenses with Jobs’ barefoot wanderings around Oregon’s Reed College and the early 70s Bay Area, introducing us to co-founder and spiritual foil Steve Wozniak (an under-utilized Josh Gad) in the process, it moves with ruthless efficiency through the founding of Apple computer in the garage of Jobs’ childhood home to its establishment on the cutting edge of the personal computing industry in the late 70s.
That ruthlessness is mirrored in Jobs himself, and the film goes to great lengths to establish the darker elements of his character. Initial glimmers come as he berates coworkers during an early stint at Atari, and ropes Wozniak in on a project for a cut rate by lying about what Atari’s paying him. By the time we see Jobs fillet and then fire an Apple programmer in 1980 for suggesting fonts are unimportant to Apple’s Lisa computer, the character is so clearly an anti-hero that what comes next – Jobs screwing friend and founding employee Daniel Kottke out of shares when Apple goes public, his stabbing hand-picked CEO John Scully in the back during the 1985 power struggle that led to Jobs leaving Apple, and his ouster of founding investor Mike Markkula from the board upon his return as CEO in 1997 – suck up nearly all of the story’s oxygen.
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Kutcher deserves credit for his inhabiting of these moments; he’s far more convincing as a barely-contained ball of fury with a withering lack of respect for anyone else than he is as a tortured creative, or a remorseful absentee father. But in going too willfully and vividly down this road, JOBS leaves itself only one way back, and that route bypasses what the Jobs story is really all about.
Jobs’ lasting gift to the world was elevating consumer electronics to a nexus where art, pop culture, and technology converge, yet the film is almost devoid of the products themselves. Aside from Jobs revealing the first iPod in the movie’s opening scene, some panning shots over Wozniak’s early designs, and quick scenes of Jobs gazing lovingly at the Lisa and the first Macintosh, Stern is almost entirely consumed with the difficult relationships Jobs has with pretty much everyone. His genius for crafting unexpected products that redefined categories and behaviors is distilled into a series of cloying platitudes – “How does someone know what they want if they’ve never seen it?”, “We don’t do fine! We don’t stop innovating!” – that obscure his specific contributions to Apple’s game-changing products.
In one brief scene of the original Macintosh being assembled, the circuit board and wiring vanish into the cabinet as the monitor seals the machine’s guts off, and it suddenly transforms into something much larger than the sum of its parts. In that moment, the computer itself looks almost like the famous “Happy Mac” icon that greeted Mac users until OSX 10.2. That simple and brilliant icon – just like the scene – conveys more about Jobs’ ability to bridge the gap between people who make computers and people who use them than 100 hours of Ashton Kutcher spouting canned lines while trying to believably lope through Apple’s hallways and hunch his shoulders just … so.
Josh Gad as Steve Wozniak, Kutcher as Jobs, Ron Eldard as Rod Holt, and Eddie Hassell as Chris Espinosa in the legendary Apple garage.
When Jobs’ road to redemption begins in 1996, we find him seemingly mellowed and humbled, toiling unsuccessfully in a garden, lunching amiably with a wife who is never introduced or explained, and reunited with a daughter we’ve never seen him acknowledge. Then Apple CEO Gil Amelio appears, unwittingly sowing the seeds to his own demise by asking Jobs back to the company in an advisory role, and freeing Jobs of his five minutes of introspection. Soon enough, he’s settling his old score with Markkula, taking a page from Scully’s playbook in maneuvering Amelio out, and showering a young designer acolyte named Jony Ive with more trite insights (“It’s gotta be a natural extension of the individual!”). The ending montage lovingly covers all the main characters in a way that’s meant to be inspiring, but by that point literally every one of the men featured have been stepped on or betrayed by Jobs to such an extent that it feels more like vengeance than gratitude.
It’s an understandable filmmaking decision to focus on the man more than the products; it would be no small feat to tell a compelling story of a fascinating individual by refracting it off inanimate objects – even the supremely sexy ones Jobs ushered into existence. But it’s hard not to wonder what creative visionaries like Fincher and Sorkin (who is busy adapting Walter Isaacson’s best-selling biography of Jobs) might have done with the same material. Either way, Stern and Whiteley take as conventional and safe a path as possible, and there’s one thing we do know for certain: Jobs himself would have fired them for doing so.