Steve Jobs lived a life too full, and too complicated, to be fully covered in a two-hour movie. Hence JOBS, the first bio-pic of his life produced after his death, has made the wise decision to limit itself to just one part of it: the relationship the eponymous titan of Silicon Valley had with the company he founded, Apple. And a tumultuous relationship it was, full of passion, cross-purposes, and unrequited love, all providing the perfect canvas to create a biography of the manís personality, not the chronology of his life. Hence Jobsí lifelong resentment at being given up for adoption is covered in his one brief line of dialogue that kills the high of the two friends tripping with him. Hence his ongoing feud with Bill Gates, one that drove both of them to top one another, is covered in a brief, but delightfully vitriolic phone diatribe by Jobs to the horror of those around him. Hence his contradictory attitude towards his first-born child, Lisa, born out of wedlock and repudiated by Jobs is illustrated with a nice juxtaposition between his lawyer urging him to accept visiting rights and another scene of the reluctant father pouring his heart and soul into the Lisa computer. It is perhaps inevitable that there would be sketchy feel to the script from time to time, but the other wise decision made by the filmmakers was casting Ashton Kutcher as Jobs more than compensates for it.
The film begins near the end, with Jobs at an Apple Town Hall Meeting introducing the IPod. It is the iconic Jobs, black turtleneck, jeans, close-cropped hair and John Lennon glasses (odd because he preferred Dylan). He is deeply self-satisfied, and deeply engaged showing off the invention that he knew would change the world, and did. The music swells heroically. The camera swoops in likewise fashion. The crowd rises to its feet in heady glee. Jobs smiles beatifically. It perfectly captures what those meetings were like. How it felt to be a true-believer receiving a gift from his deity. It is the legend that has grown up around Jobs. It is the perfect way to start,
We jump back to 1972. The future billionaire is a college dropout who sleeps on sofas at the Reed College student union and drops into classes when not wandering barefoot across campus seducing girls and verbally sparring with a professor (James Woods) who wants him back matriculating. He discovers calligraphy, computers, and the magic of uniting form with function. He travels to India and gets philosophical. He comes home and demands to know why the company he works for, Atari, canít create a computer game in color. He has personality and hygiene issues, but he also has recognized genius, though as it turns out, itís not in inventing. Rather itís in having the ideas, and finding someone else to do the inventing.
This is no hagiography. His first chance to shine is also an opportunity to short-change Steve Woziniak (Josh Gad), the friend who saves his bacon at Atari by a couple of thousand dollars. His first chance to be his own boss is his first chance to take advantage of a neighborhood kid by not paying him for his help in the assembly line building the Apple I in his fatherís garage. When his longtime girlfriend (Ahna OĎReilly) tells him that sheís pregnant, he doesnít just deny that heís the father, he packs her up and throws her out of his house on the spot while cutting all ties with furious tears and terrifying abruptness.
Kutcher is compelling, even mesmerizing. The ruthlessness, the arrogance, the thin skin, and the complete self-absorption are there in all their ugly glory. So is the desperation as the young Jobs makes phone-call after phone-call trying to find backers for his company, literally screaming in frustration and berating the people in that now famous garage where he started Apple for not pulling their weight. So is the keen, even terrifying intelligence resulting in a drive for perfection in everything that allowed for no compromise in anything. From taking Wozniak to task for not achieving symmetry in the way he soldering components on a mother board, to firing a programmer on the spot for not getting why fonts are important, to refusing to back down over the price-point of the Macintosh, a stance that gets him fired from his own company. Kutcher embraces the contradictions of a man who cried easily, was prone to sudden rages, was wounded by betrayal, and used people remorselessly, yet who could inspire unwavering loyalty in those who shared his vision. There is also the palpable, but not overplayed, delight as Jobs plays with the first Mac, and then lightly, but sternly, orders that more memory be included and does so without missing an emotional beat. He also embraces, but does not caricature the mannerisms, from the shambling gait, to the purse of the lips, and the gestures. It is a performance that propels Kutcher into the ranks of serious actor capable of much more than the rom-coms and stoner comedies on which he has built his movie career so far.
Speechifying towards the end by a designer who falls into the category of Jobs worshipper is clunky, even if it does perfectly articulate the Apple mission statement as Jobs would have written it. And itís unexpected when contrasted with the graceful, even moving, soliloquy Gad, in a soulful and buoyant performance, delivers as Woz sums up for his old friend why he is leaving Apple, bringing Jobs up short on how seeing the big picture all the time is as dangerous as never seeing it at all.
JOBS is at its best and most thought-provoking in portraying the conflict between the present and the future as represented by the clash between Jobs and his board of directors led by Arthur Rock (J.K. Simmons) and the man Jobs hand-picked to be the CEO of Apple John Scully (Matthew Modine). In retrospect, every decision the board made overruling Jobs and ultimately firing him was, given the then-present circumstances, sound business management. With luxury of hindsight, they are revealed as the short-sighted, lunk-headed moves that they were. This is not a perfect film, but it is a good and worthwhile one, distilling the essence of its eponymous subject and his times.