The biographical feature film, aka the biopic, can offer its own type of insight when done well. It can present a filmmaker’s interpretation or reasonably true speculation about its subject’s life based on the existing facts. When done poorly or for less than honorable purposes, the resulting biopic can be a sentimental PR piece or the birthplace for a publicly acceptable lie.
Where does Joshua Michael Stern’s biopic “Jobs” fall on this continuum? Does Ashton Kutcher’s performance and public baggage help or hinder this film? The answers to these questions are both obvious and enigmatic.
Kutcher plays the film’s titular character, Apple Computers founder Steve Jobs. The film may begin with the Apple Town Hall at which Jobs unveils the iPod. But the actual story begins with Jobs’ college dropout days at Reed College and then proceeds chronologically. Along the way, the viewer meets such important men in Jobs’ life as his partner Steve Wozniak and his initial financial backer Mike Markkula (Dermot Mulroney). The film also expectedly captures some of Jobs’ major successes and failures in nurturing Apple’s growth.
For a film about a man whose company created some of the big tools that shaped our present, “Jobs”’ ultimate message looks familiar and not terribly artfully presented. Stern’s film proves itself another iteration of the traditional “Macho jerks are the ones who change the world.”
In keeping with that tradition, “Jobs” relegates its female characters to mainly background color. The only significant women seen in the film are Jobs’ mother (Leslie Ann Warren) and betrayed girlfriend Julie (Amanda Crew). In one particularly noxious moment, a post-one night stand with a woman ends with Jobs mentioning his supposed girlfriend.
The film is honest enough to admit that its titular character is an equal-opportunity exploiter. Early on, Jobs needs friend Steve Wozniak’s after-hours help to complete a project at Atari. While the help turns out to be a career-saver, the future computer company founder deliberately pays his friend far less than an equal share of the spoils. A more outrageous moment comes later during a critical business lunch where Jobs’ stock distribution plans also become a betrayal of several old friends.
William Faulkner once famously wrote about how the creation of great art requires an artist to rob, cheat, or even kill their grandmother to reach that end. As Faulkner famously concluded, “The ‘Ode to a Grecian Urn’ is worth any number of old ladies.” Could the existence of the Apple Mac and the iPod ultimately excuse the personal betrayals Jobs committed?
“Jobs” avoids having its titular character give long heroic speeches about the bright future that he sees being created by personal computers’ advent. For that mercy, Stern has at least one viewer’s gratitude.
Yet the film doesn’t offer the compensation of demonstrating the type of future Jobs is working towards. Jobs’ constant dissatisfaction with other peoples’ common willingness to settle for short term solutions or profit would naturally be a source of friction. Stern and screenwriter Matt Whiteley fail to show what grease, emotional or otherwise, Jobs provided to help ease people past these abrasive moments to keep focused on Apple’s proverbial long game. Instead, the filmmakers give Jobs unearned sympathetic carte blanche when it comes to fostering new computer technology.
Fighting to create a better future can be a source of dramatic conflict. Pitting what one character sees as a better way of doing things against a status quo that another character is heavily invested in sums up how this struggle can be dramatized. In “Jobs,” influential Apple Board member Arthur Rock clearly embodies the status quo business approach of predictability and profitability. Yet neither Kutcher nor the filmmakers make the dramatic case that even failed risky efforts, such as the Lisa project, are worth the attempt of finding a superior way of accomplishing things.
Perhaps this dramatic shortcoming shouldn’t have been too surprising. Despite Jobs’ ultimate praise for the dreamers among us, the Jobs the filmmakers sympathize with happens to be the one who is a fast-talking hustler. Wozniak’s disastrous presentation of his prototype for the personal computer before Stanford’s Homebrew Computer Club would have relegated his project to an amusing dream. But it is Jobs’ ability to speak the business language of the Byteshop’s Paul Terrell and later the slick Markkula that truly starts transforming Wozniak’s idea into practical reality.
“Follow your dream” as a film’s message has in recent years been a spark for critical eye-rolling thanks to its ubiquitous banality. “Jobs” redeems the theme slightly by showing the costs of fanatically pursuing this course. The protagonist’s backlash against girlfriend Julie’s announcement that she’s pregnant with Jobs' daughter feels sparked by his unwillingness to sacrifice his dreams for Apple.
However, “Jobs”’ walk on Hollywood’s dramatic wild side ultimately stands revealed as nervous steps over the commercial acceptability border. Somewhat muted sound levels can’t conceal the weary triumphal tones of John Debney’s musical score. Jobs’ expulsion from Apple leads to such familiar “hitting rock bottom” cinematic moments as returning to the family manse where the big dream started becoming reality. Finally, Kutcher’s box office fortunes would not be well served playing an utterly unredeemed jerk to the very end.
It’s ironic that “Jobs” can’t shake an air of Hollywood fakery. The filmmakers obviously worked with reference material concerning the stages of Apple’s growth. Kutcher has stated he’d studied Jobs’ speeches and presentations to get a grasp of this emotionally controlled man’s personality. Even small dramatic liberties such as electrical engineer Rod Holt having a Socialist Worker poster on the wall of his Apple office aren’t a problem.
But “Jobs” can never be in the same artistic league as “Citizen Kane” or “I’m Not There.” It offers no piercing insight into the life of its subject. Like the binary code used to program computers, the emotional complexities of Stern’s film pretty much boil down to good computer creators and bad money men. Non-Jobs acolytes will want more.
(“Jobs” will open theatrically on August 16, 2013.)