D: Joshua Michael Stern / 128m
Cast: Ashton Kutcher, Dermot Mulroney, Josh Gad, Lukas Haas, Matthew Modine, J.K. Simmons, Lesley Ann Warren, Ron Eldard, Ahna O’Reilly, Victor Rasuk, John Getz, Kevin Dunn, Robert Pine, James Woods
Opening with the unveiling of the iPod in 2001, Jobs looks back at the founding of Apple, and the emergence of the Mac, while also providing a biography of Apple’s co-founder Steve Jobs (Kutcher). The movie covers the years 1974 to 1996, and while there is at least one other movie that paints a better picture of those times – Pirates of Silicon Valley (1999) – this tries hard to provide a fair representation of both the events that occurred and the people involved with them. That said, the focus here is squarely on Steve Jobs.
From the earliest moments at Reed College where Jobs has dropped out, the movie paints him as a maverick, well-liked, able to maintain relationships, but still an outsider. Two of these aspects would fade as time passed, but in these early days it’s easy to root for Jobs because he has an almost goofy enthusiasm for what he’s doing. When he sees what his friend Steve Wozniak (Gad) is working on, and realises the potential for the home computer market (which didn’t exist back in 1976), he persuades Wozniak to go into business with him, and Apple Computer Ltd is born.
Getting Apple off the ground isn’t easy, but Jobs pushes and pushes until the company is launched on the stock market. But there’s no overnight success story. The Apple II consumes so much research and development money that Apple is on the verge of being financially crippled; the shareholders start to question Jobs’ methods, and the board of directors, led by Arthur Rock (Simmons), relieve Jobs of his position as head of the company.
Asked by board member (and original investor) Mike Markkula (Mulroney) to work on another project that Apple had initially passed on, Jobs takes over the development of the Macintosh. The same motivations and working methods cause similar problems but the Macintosh is a revolutionary step forward for home computing. When the board is presented with the Mac they see its potential but have no idea how to market it. Jobs insists they hire John Sculley (Modine) away from Pepsi (he came up with the Pepsi Taste Test Challenge). With Sculley on board, everything looks set for the success everyone has waited for. But there’s a problem (isn’t there always?): the cost of making the Mac is prohibitive in terms of selling it to the public. This time, the board votes to remove Jobs from Apple altogether, and install Sculley as its CEO. Let down by everyone around him, Jobs turns his back on Apple and works on another project that he launches himself, NeXT. While this affords him modest success, the same can’t be said for Apple. The company flounders without him, the shares take a nosedive, and they spend too much time and money competing with Microsoft. With things spiralling out of control, the new board, led by Ed Woolard (Pine), bring Jobs back in as – at first – a consultant, and then as the new CEO. Back in charge of his own company, Jobs takes Apple forward on the journey that so many of us are grateful for.
As a one-stop shop for the early history of Apple, Jobs is consistently lightweight, both in its depictions of those early days, and the impact those days have on us now, and it’s the movie’s split personality that gets in the way. It wants to be a chronicle of those pioneering days when home computers were a dream that only a few could imagine. It also wants to be a biopic of Steve Jobs. And even though the movie runs over two hours, it always feels that there’s a lot of incidents and events that have been left out.
The movie also struggles to explain a lot of what was happening and why on a personal level. The relationship between Jobs and Wozniak is a case in point. Wozniak is the man largely responsible for the first Apple computer; his initial work paved the way for all the Apple computer products we use today. He and Jobs, at first, are great pals. But as the business grows and Jobs becomes more and more obsessed with making Apple a pioneer in home computing, their relationship withers until Wozniak decides he has to leave. Gad gets a compelling but ultimately “Hollywood” speech to make as Wozniak, explaining why he thinks things have gone wrong between them. It’s a rare moment in a movie that provides plenty of strong emotional moments – Jobs’ rant at Bill Gates over the phone is a highlight – but they’re not grounded in any kind of recognisable, explainable way. Jobs shouts at his co-workers to goad them on; Jobs refuses to believe his girlfriend’s child is his; Markkula says he’s on Jobs’ side the night before he votes with the board to force Jobs out; all these events or moments and more remain unexplained or unexplored.
The problem lies with the script by Matt Whiteley. It skims over a lot of events without attaching any depth to them, or overdoes the “significance” factor (Jobs throwing away a Walkman). The dialogue is often simplistic in relation to the people involved, but seems more sure-footed when dealing with the technical side of things. It also provides a few unintentional moments of humour, and in its efforts to cover such a long period of time, misses things out altogether (for example, Jobs’ marriage to Laurene Powell – she and their first child, Reed, appear out of the blue). Stern fails to address these issues, and while most scenes hold the attention, they often lack for any cohesion or cumulative effect – sometimes it’s like watching a series of vignettes.
Kutcher has a superficial resemblance to the younger Jobs, and this may be why he was cast. However, Kutcher is not an actor with a broad range, and there are several instances where he fails to convince, mostly when Jobs is being cruel: the conviction is there but Kutcher makes Jobs sound petulant as well, an aspect of his character that seems out of place. Mulroney and Simmons do well, as does Gad, although each actor has a minimal amount of support from the script and their director. The production design by Freddy Waff is solid if unspectacular, while Russell Carpenter’s cinematography gives the movie a welcome boost. For a movie made in the past year, it certainly looks like one made in the 70’s and 80’s, and that contemporary feel is one of the few positive aspects Jobs gets right.
Rating: 5/10 – a scattershot approach to the early days of Apple leaves Jobs as unrewarding as buying a Betamax video player must have been; watch only as a jumping off point, or to dip your toes in the water.