Jobs is the equivalent of a feature-length slow clap. It even begins with applause, as Apple co-founder Steve Jobs (Ashton Kutcher, looking a lot like the actual Steve Jobs) addresses the company’s town hall in 2001, introducing the iPod. “What it represents is as important as what it is,” he says. “It’s a tool for the heart,” putting that emphasis on certain key words that marked Jobs’s tech visionary/marketing guru cadence. We’re barely a minute into the movie, and the music has already begun to soar triumphantly.
Now, the people who made Jobs — director Joshua Michael Stern and writer Matt Whiteley — aren’t stupid. They know it’s too early to start with the exultant crescendos. They know that they don’t need to mythologize Steve Jobs, because our culture has already done so. Rather, the film attempts to start from the myth and work its way back, showing the hard work and heartbreak and screaming fits and occasional backstabbing that went into such innovations as the personal computer, the really small personal computer, and the really pretty personal computer. The problem is that the film gets too wrapped up in the myth to tell an effective behind-the-scenes tale.
The flashback narrative starts off with young Reed College student Jobs (Kutcher, now looking a bit more like Ashton Kutcher) passed out on a couch in the early seventies, waking up and walking shoeless around campus, an aimless guy who’s not sure he’s cut out for the whole higher education racket. He’s also a bit of a careless Lothario, at one point meeting and bedding a young coed, then taking three drops of acid from her — “to share with my friend and my girlfriend.” When he does get high, Steve is prone to getting mopey about the fact that he’s adopted and that he was once somebody’s unwanted child: “Who has a baby and just throws it away like it’s nothing?” he weeps.
Anyway, one montage of traveling around India and learning about personal enlightenment later, we find Steve working for Atari, still not particularly motivated, and lacking in both personal hygiene and social skills. Sent off to work on a struggling video game project for his company, he reconnects with his engineer friend Steve Wozniak (Josh Gad, in a very good performance) and becomes obsessed with a personal project of Woz’s: a motherboard for a personal computing device. The film is at its best when detailing these early years as Jobs and Woz try to put together and sell their harebrained scheme to make these personal computers, enlisting a ragtag band of nerds, misfits, and engineers to help them. At one point, director Stern shoots these guys putting together the first Apple computers in slow-motion, plugging in circuits and whatnot; funny yet touching, it’s the one scene in the film where this heroic approach to the tale briefly makes sense.
After things take off, the movie goes into narrative hyperdrive, touching on Jobs’s efforts to develop the Apple Lisa, then the Macintosh, his struggles with investors, his removal as CEO, and his eventual, fated return. Along the way, we get what might seem on paper like a balanced, even critical portrait. We see Jobs screw over many in his initial Apple team over stock options. We see Jobs neglect his child, in an ironic echo of the pain of his own youth. We see Jobs unable to control his fury at the idea that the suits that he has to deal with fail to appreciate his vision. We see him curse out Bill Gates over the phone. All along the way, though, are Steve Jobs’s Don Draper moments — those moments when he reveals that what people are looking for isn’t a product, but an attitude, a posture, a way of being or belonging. That was, of course, the genius of Steve Jobs: Who else could turn the idea of computers with splashes of color into some sort of generational event?
It’s not necessarily a bad thing for a film to be enamored of its own subject, and if you’re the kind of guy who gets weepy at remembering the first time you saw a blue iMac, then you’ll probably want to check Jobs out. But this mythic approach can become a problem if it bleeds over into the structure of the film. What made The Social Network click was that its creators didn’t seem to care much for (or for that matter even understand) Facebook the company, the creation. The appeal of social media was for them important only insofar as it had dramatic relevance — the product catching on was a plot point, not the equivalent of Christianity taking root in the civilized world. Jobs, for its part, leaves us with emotional crescendos where story should be: It gives us stirring scenes of Jobs introducing the first Apple computers, the first Macintosh, the first iPod, then abandons the thread, fading out or flashing forward or whatever. It leaves us to complete the tale, the cinematic equivalent of the expression, “And the rest is history.” It’s the kind of approach that might work in a Jesus movie, but not in the tale of a charismatic business leader. For all its attempts at an evenhanded portrayal, Jobs can’t transcend mere hagiography.