Can a single feature film fit together the jigsaw pieces that formed Steve Jobs? How do you reconcile the barefoot hippie drug dabbler with the cutthroat empire-builder who became one of the most successful businessmen of the 20th (and 21st) century? The ruthless control freak whose marketing praised rebels and freethinkers? The child put up for adoption by his biological father, who then denied paternity of his own firstborn? If ever a man was a miniseries, it’s Jobs.
“Jobs” doesn’t undertake the titanic task of resolving its enigmatic subject’s contradictions. Beginning with Jobs as an elder statesman of Silicon Valley, it rewinds to cover his formative years, from his garage-startup days producing the first Apple circuit boards through the birth of the iMac. It’s a cleaned-up overview (it never mentions that Jobs’ first business venture with tech wiz Steve Wozniak was ripping off the phone company with illegal accessories for making free long distance calls.)
Still, there are enough examples of Jobs’ thermonuclear temper and Machiavellian temperament to keep Joshua Michael Stern’s biopic from being mere corporate hagiography. It will certainly tide us over until the arrival of Sony’s upcoming big-budget Jobs drama written by Aaron Sorkin (“The Social Network”).
Just as skeptics underestimated Jobs at their peril, the haters who predicted that Ashton Kutcher would embarrass himself as Jobs were simply wrong. Though he looks almost emaciated (following Jobs’ fruit-only diet landed Kutcher in the hospital), he radiates hustling energy and confidence. He carries — no, dominates — virtually every scene in the film. His Jobs is a hot-eyed, acrimonious innovator with no time for backtalk or B players.
In 1976 (punch card mainframes, rotary phones, vinyl recordings) Jobs, scarcely out of his teens, grasps future possibilities no one else envisions. He foresees personal computers not as a niche product for engineers, but as elegantly simple information “appliances” everyone should use — and buy. His adversaries range from balky programmers who don’t see why a word processor needs a gallery of typefaces, to pinstriped marketing drones convinced that innovation and profit can’t coexist, to the board of directors (J.K. Simmons, Matthew Modine and Dermot Mulroney among them) who dismiss him from his own company and run it to near-bankruptcy. Every chapter of the story has Kutcher colliding with obstacles to his aims. Rarely has an actor brought so much variety to looking pissed off.
Josh Gad exudes teddy bear charm as Woz, the computer savant who inhabited the opposite extreme of the Myers-Briggs personality scale. In early scenes, filmed in the actual garage of Jobs’ parents’ bungalow, he’s a naïve pipsqueak steamrolled over and again by his forceful partner. By the mid-’80s, with Jobs locked in a death struggle against the floundering company’s board, he’s heartbroken to see the arrogant obsessive his colleague has become. “This doesn’t end well for you,” he predicts, tears on his cheeks. He’s sincere, but like the other Jobs doubters, he’s wrong.
Not much of the film deals in private moments. Most of the action occurs in conference rooms, design studios and engineers’ bullpens, with careful attention to the historical record. Even the design of the original Apple circuit board is spot-on. As Jobs tells his designers, “even the smallest details are important.”
It’s in the overview, the movie’s obligation to entertain, that it comes up short. John Debney’s elbow-in-the-ribs score tells us precisely what we ought to be feeling in every scene. Stern (who directed the Kevin Costner political drama “Swing Vote”) makes the sort of obvious, cliched choices that would have sent Jobs into a spittle-flecked meltdown. Other than people who are mildly curious about the guy who put the smartphone in their pocket and the tablet computer in their knapsack, I’m not sure who “Jobs” was made for. It’s no embarrassment, but given its subject it should have been insanely great.