It's often conventional, marred by a tidy ending, but Jobs deserves defenders. Locally shot at Steve Jobs' childhood home, the $8.5 million biopic failed to set the night on fire when it closed Sundance. News of an Aaron ( The Social Network ) Sorkin-written biopic, in development now, meant that some were referring to Jobs as a beta version of the story even before it was released. According to Jobs' director Joshua Michael Stern, Steve Wozniak has already signed on as a consultant on Sorkin's untitled adaptation of Walter Issacson's book on the Apple co-founder.
The Sorkin version will be three separate real-time scenes of crises in Jobs' fiction-beggaring career. By contrast, Jobs takes place over three decades, beginning with the unveiling of the iPod. Then it flashes back to Steve Jobs' hippie days at Reed College, and then to the garage where he wielded a soldering iron. Money men (Arthur Rock played by J. K. Simmons and Matthew Modine as John Sculley) come aboard. His longtime friend and associate Steve Wozniak (Josh Gad), envisioned as the plump sidekick type, is the last to be betrayed before Jobs himself gets fed to the revolution he started. Finally, Jobs returns to the company he co-founded, just before its time of maximum profitability.
As Jobs, Ashton Kutcher's acting is a surprise. The prankster/actor holds the screen like he never has before. In an interview, Stern told me about the work Kutcher put in—the actor even followed, and became ill from, Jobs' fructiferous diet. Kutcher captures the remoteness of the inventor/entrepreneur, the tincture of Asian philosophy that shaped him and the overgrown California kid in him that never died.
Stern has the integrity to note Jobs' numerous nasty qualities: his Mr. Burns-like dismissal of an employee during the "Lisa" crisis, his skimming money from Wozniak's cut during the 1976 reprogramming of Atari's game "Breakout," the heartless ditching of his pregnant girlfriend ... even the smell of his unwashed feet.
The ruthless industrialist type has been a subject of films all the way back to Citizen Kane and before. But much of today's American cinema requires cinematic dermabrasion on a subject's warts. The post-film questioning at a recent San Francisco promotional screening left Kutcher without an easy answer to one audience member's question: How would Kutcher define the way Jobs understood loyalty? While Kutcher thought it over, I thought of Charles Foster Kane's line: "Love on my terms. Those are the only terms anybody ever knows—his own."
I interviewed Stern at a subterranean conference room at the Ritz-Carlon. Stern says, "I wish we'd had a comparable budget to Citizen Kane , but I wasn't thinking in those terms, even though we had a very Citizen Kane -like fireplace in the film. Jobs has the same thematic notion as Citizen Kane , that there is a business to vision. Once you have a vision, someone has to apply business to that. That means in Jobs' case, constant feuding with people very adverse to the kind of risks Jobs wanted to take. Failure was just too costly."
Stern addressed the issue of Jobs' sympathetic qualities. "Aside from the early relationships, we told it as it occurred—we didn't want an artificial scene where he gets touchy-feely just for the dramatic license. You could describe Steve Jobs as a misunderstood genius trying, against all odds, to better our lives. He was trying so hard, which is why we had a scene of him crying in his father's arms, back when he was a kid in a garage making things. The problem with doing anything on Jobs is that he's a true enigma. Those around him, who worked with him for 30 years, said things like, 'I don't think Steve knew I was married, or had kids.' Meaning: he didn't have those kinds of interpersonal relationships."
The script implies that this remarkable remoteness had something to do with Jobs' feelings about being adopted. Stern says, "I think he had the general curiosity of an adopted child, he wanted to know, on some level, who his birth father was. Later, he got into a relationship with his sister, a huge, huge blessing to Jobs. His adoptive parents were loving—he commented that he had a wonderful childhood, and that it was like the TV show Leave It To Beaver . He didn't have that childhood drama that explains his later problems. This is a nuanced movie. It doesn't answer all the questions."
Most of the film was shot in Los Angeles, but Stern notes, "We were up here for a week. We shot in Jobs' house where he grew up, where he and Woz manufactured the first Apple computers." The house hasn't been frozen in time, like Elvis' Graceland. "Steve Jobs' adopted mother passed away and his father remarried. The furniture was new. The garage is still mostly as it was, though, with a calendar on the wall from the Carter years. It was a real ghost moment, capturing an event in the place where it occurred."
Jobs is punctuated with repeated aerial shots of Silicon Valley. Stern says that he did this to emphasize a sense of place amid changing times. "It all occurred in the valley. This is a valley story. Jobs spent most of his life within 10 or 15 miles of where he was born. He lived here and married here—though he could have gone anywhere."
Stern knew about the Sorkin/Isaacson film before production started on Jobs. Stern argues "this is a story that'll be told 10 times. It'll be a mini-series. There was literally talk of an animated version of Job's life. It's like Hamlet , it'll be told and acted many ways. We're first out of the gate, so there's more weight on the shoulders. But we're hoping that as time goes by people will say, 'Given what they knew about Jobs at the time, Jobs is the best version.'"
After some thought about the question asked at the screening, Kutcher eventually defined Jobs' loyalty as "his loyalty to his vision, his willingness to run over a family to save a baby." "Thinking different" didn't end-run the old robber-baron strain that lived in Jobs. But this biography honors Jobs as one who, almost alone—Ray Bradbury would have been in his company—understood we wouldn't want computers in our home because we feared to be without them, or because they knew how to balance our checkbooks. We would want them because they allured us with their design and simplicity. We would want them because they sang to us.
PG-13; 122 min.