This week we review a biopic that’s gotten a lot of hype recently: Jobs
(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)
Reviewing this movie is a tough Jobs but somebody has to do it.
The movie opens with Steve Jobs (Ashton Kutcher) at a 2001 Apple Town Hall meeting introducing the next, most insanely great thing: the iPod. Then we flash back to 1976 where Steve is a drop out at Reed College – or more like a drop in as he continues to take classes and trip on illicit drugs. Then we flash forward a few years and Steve is in trouble with his boss at Atari because he doesn’t bathe and insults his co-workers. But his boss gives him an impossible assignment which Steve gleefully accepts. He turns to his buddy Steve Wozniak (Josh Gad) to help him out of the jam. Steve is paid $5000 for the job but he only gives Woz a paltry $350.
Jobs and Wozniak eventually build their first personal computer from scratch and name their new company Apple. They hire several friends to help build the computers in the garage of Steve’s family home. Jobs is desperate for someone with deep pockets to finance them, and he has trouble finding anyone willing to take the risk until one day Mike Markkula (Dermot Mulroney) shows up. Jobs and Woz then develop the Apple II computer and the company takes off from there. But there are setbacks. Jobs’ girlfriend gets pregnant unexpectedly and Steve wants nothing to do with the baby. And when the company grows to the point where John Sculley (Matthew Modine) becomes CEO, Sculley forces Jobs out of Apple entirely.
Jobs is one Steve Jobs anecdote after another. Jobs suffers from the same problems as many biopics: cramming the whole of a person’s life into 120 minutes is impossible. Either they’re going to focus on one major event in the person’s life, or give one minute to every event in that person’s life. And so it goes with Jobs. The writer (Matt Whiteley) has decided to try and cover all the major events in Steve Jobs’ life from 1976 through 2001 – that’s 25 years or roughly 5 minutes a year. When you do that something is going to be left out.
Very true, Greg. I have mixed feelings about Jobs. On the one hand, I enjoyed watching a true underdog story. And it was fun watching the evolution of personal computing unfolding right before our very eyes. As a life-long user of Apple products, I was very interested in this saga and the behind-the-scenes look at foundation of the computer revolution. Ashton Kutcher deserves praise for his portrayal of Steve Jobs — he gets the voice and even the strange monkey-like gait just right.
But here’s where I was left dissatisfied: The movie portrays Steve Jobs as a jerk. As you noted, Greg, he cheats Wozniak shamefully of money certainly owed to him. And we see what a cad Jobs is when his girlfriend becomes pregnant. Throughout the movie, we are witness to the many ways that Jobs treats people like objects and shows nothing but utter selfishness. It’s very hard to root for a “hero” who behaves so wretchedly throughout 99% of the movie.
I agree, Kutcher’s Jobs starts out very self-centered and lacking empathy. The movie did smooth over some of those attributes after Jobs was dismissed from Apple and then asked to return years later. We see him waking Lisa (his now teen-aged daughter) while she sleeps in his mansion and he gives a subtle suggestion to (a young) Johnny Ive (Giles Matthey) when he says “here’s a stupid idea – what if we put the speakers inside the unit.” This is an attempt to show that the hero has learned from his experiences – a typical hero’s journey.
However, if you’re a computer geek like myself, these anecdotes are watered-down versions of the lore that swirls around Steve Jobs. Also, if you’ve read Walter Isaacson’s biography of Jobs you know that a lot of the Jobs story is left untold in this movie (for example, the NeXT computer and Pixar are absent). And a lot of the detail of the events in the movie is lost. This movie is little more than a point-by-point accounting of the events of Steve Jobs’ life. Without a good set of high and low points to punctuate the story, Jobs is little more than a narrative documentary.
Yes, Steve Jobs becomes transformed by the end of the movie, and the film is telling us that Jobs’ dismissal from Apple made him a changed man. But we aren’t privy to how the transformation happened. Compare this hero transformation to what we witness in the movie Groundhog Day, where the hero Phil Connors is also a wretch but attracts sympathy when he is utterly defeated and humbled. And then we are shown in detail how Connors develops a heart of gold.
The hero journey in Groundhog day is supremely satisfying because we see the transformation right before our eyes, with Connors’ love interest Rita playing a pivotal role in awaking his heart. In Jobs, the transformation occurs only at the very end of the movie and it happens entirely off screen – an extremely poor decision on the part of the filmmakers. How did Jobs finally become a nice guy? Who knows?
I think the writer would have done better to focus on one element of Steve Jobs’ life. The pivotal moment that made Steve who he would become, rather than trying to tell the whole story. Part of the story had already been told back in 1999’s made-for-TV movie “Pirates of Silicon Valley.” In that case we follow young Bill Gates and Steve Jobs as they wrestle for domination over the windows desktop look-and-feel that we’ve all become familiar with.
Which brings me to another fateful missing piece in this movie: Steve Jobs was a thief. He never really had an original idea. A glaring omission from Jobs is the fact that Steve Jobs stole the Lisa/Macintosh windowing system from Xerox PARC. This is a pivotal moment in computing history and would become the basis for much case law surrounding innovation in high technology.
Overall, I enjoyed Jobs but clearly would have enjoyed it much more if it had shown us more details of his heroic transformation. In addition, I felt somewhat disappointed that the film ended without showing us the full story — how did the iPod come about, and what was the genesis of the iPad, iPhone, and other familiar gadgets that we use today? And how is it that Jobs had completely dark hair in 1996 and completely white hair in 2001? Was the illness that eventually killed him to blame or was this a continuity error?
Jobs is a fairly well-crafted biopic that shows us the life of a highly flawed man whose selfishness was far greater than his innovative sense or his business acumen. I had trouble rooting for this man to succeed and didn’t buy the film’s skimpy treatment of his transformation. For this reason, I award Jobs 2 Reels out of 5, and a mere 2 Heroes out of 5 as well.
I was as unimpressed as you were, Scott. Except I would not call this a capably crafted story. It is flawed in many ways more than those we’ve already mentioned. Kutcher’s Jobs is just a calm version of Kutcher himself. The Hero’s Journey is evident but only if you look under the covers. Steve Jobs was a complex man, driven by inner forces that this movie gives only passing attention to. There are no surprises or insights here. Just a flat retelling of 25 years of an iconic man’s life. Steve Jobs deserved better.
For a lackluster, linear, flat presentation of one of America’s great technological leaders I give Jobs just 2 Reels out of 5. However, I was able to detect the faint arc of the Hero’s Journey so I award Jobs 3 Heroes out of 5.