Ashton Kutcher as Steve Jobs Less than two years since Steve Jobs' passing, his life story hits the silver screen today. The limited release of Jobs, the feature-length film directed by Joshua Michael Stern and starring Ashton Kutcher, was delayed from its original April release after it received poor reviews at the Sundance Film Festival. The official release will please Apple fans with its casting and acting as much as it will frustrate them with its script and dramatic reinterpretation of events.
Jobs is more a memoir than a biography, telling not the life story of Steve Jobs or the corporate history of Apple, but the relationship between the two. The film opens in 2001 with Jobs introducing the iPod at an internal company meeting, and thats the furthest in Apple's chronology the movie goes -- perhaps to serve as an entry point to theatergoers whose familiarity with Apple begins and ends with their iOS devices.
The film then rewinds to 1974, with Jobs a Reed College dropout, embarking on a spiritual quest to India with friend Daniel Kottke, then returning home to found Apple with Steve Wozniak (better known as Woz). The movie next skips from 1977 to 1980 to follow the development of the Lisa and Macintosh computers -- leading to Jobs ouster as CEO in 1985 -- then closes briefly with Jobs' return to Apple in 1996. At no point does it mention his acquisition of Pixar, his marriage to Laurene Powell, the creation of the iPhone or iPad, or his battle with cancer. Nor do we see how the years away from Apple mellowed Jobs, or why Apple welcomed him back more than a decade later.
In the years the film does key in on, we see a lot of Jobs' infamous ruthlessness: stiffing Woz on a paycheck from Atari; denying stock options to early Apple employee Kottke; and rejecting his paternity of Chrisann Brennan's daughter -- that being perhaps the most obvious manifestation of Jobs' renowned Reality Distortion Field (in this case, turned inward). In that scene, my movie-going companion, unfamiliar with Jobs' tale, turned to me and asked, "Really?" She found it hard to believe the story was true and not something fabricated for Jobs.
To make Jobs likable or sympathetic in the face of such flaws, other facts are distorted or obscured. In one scene, Jobs directs his fury over the phone at Microsoft CEO Bill Gates, who Jobs believes has stolen the Mac operating systems UI for Windows. But the film omits Jobs' visit to Xerox's PARC R&D division, where he absconded with the concepts for a mouse-driven GUI in the first place. Instead, the movie suggests Jobs was the genius who invented these ideas, overlooking the irony of Gates stealing from someone who famously proclaimed, "Great artists steal."
Other corporate missteps, including the failed Apple III, are never mentioned; instead, we're given the impression that it's not Jobs who is his own worst enemy, but the board of directors. Darn corporate bureaucracy! If they'd just listened to Jobs, everything would've been fine!
But Jobs doesn't listen to anyone; hes too obsessed with creating insanely great products. When Woz finally decides to leave Apple, he bids Jobs a tearful farewell, saying that both Jobs and the company have forgotten their original enthusiasm. "You're the beginning and end of your world, Steve," Woz laments. "It's so small and so sad."
The truth -- that Woz had gotten married, been in a near-fatal plane accident, and decided to return to college -- wouldn't make Jobs look nearly as bad.
For sure, Josh Gad's Woz is likable: innocent, faithful, endearingly awkward. But he sometimes feels more like a Big Bang Theory character that we're supposed to laugh at instead of with. The real Woz wasn't nearly as portly, unkempt, or outspoken as the film version.
As with Woz's departing speech, which Jobs silently absorbs, the film sports numerous monologues, from rousing speeches to scathing attacks, that are intended to flesh out various characters, but they often fall flat. Jobs tries to compensate by slathering those scenes with an overbearing soundtrack, as though the audience wouldn't know its watching a dramatic moment if not for the sweeping score. If you want witty, snappy dialogue, wait for Sony's supposed adaptation of Walter Isaacson's Steve Jobs biography, with a script by Aaron Sorkin of West Wing fame.
For all the film's historical and dramatic faults, the acting is actually quite good, starting with the uncanny casting of Kutcher in the title role. When Kutcher first steps on stage, it's hard not to hear his voice as that of Kelso from That Seventies Show. But he soon becomes the intense, idiosyncratic CEO the public saw on stage. Other historical figures are cast with similar accuracy, so much so that the end credits showcase the resemblance with side-by-side photos of the actors and their real-life counterparts.
Though I delighted in seeing Jobs immortalize my heroes and icons -- I still have an Apple II on my desk -- I suspect I'm more the exception than the rule in finding this film entertaining. Jobs feels like a movie that doesn't stand alone: it requires some prior knowledge of the players and plot. If it were a prequel, it would be one that demonstrates how known characters ended up where they did, instead of adding something new to a hero's backstory. Its opening and closing bookends are shallow: by focusing on Jobs' experiences at Apple, the film doesn't show us what made him such a quixotic, disloyal taskmaster in the first place; and a less-rushed ending could've allowed for a more meaningful coda, offering up some resolution or at least an opportunity to reflect on the hero's journey. What we get instead is a creative retelling that's inaccurate for those of us familiar with the tale and superficial for everyone else.
The official trailer for Jobs.
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This story, "'Jobs' the Movie Applies its Own Reality Distortion Field" was originally published by Computerworld.