Jobs opens on a tracking shot, following the back of Ashton Kutcher’s head. He walks down stairs toward and then past a portrait of Einstein, and into a room full of adoring workers. It’s the 2001 Apple Town Hall Meeting, the film tells you, the one where Jobs announced the iPod. As Kutcher’s Jobs speaks, the camera moves, sometimes with him, sometimes not quite keeping up. The audience at Apple claps and beams, believing, as of course they must, that he is indeed bestowing on them a device that will “revolutionize an entire industry.”
The iPod did that, as you know. And so it makes both an apt and odd place to start the film. For it’s not a beginning here, but a flashforward, one that will not be seen again, as Jobs will conclude when Jobs is rehired at Apple, in 1998, determined to reclaim his identity as the genius who revolutionized… not just an industry but how an industry presents itself. As much as Jobs might have felt inspired by Einstein, his brilliance was of another dimension, a dimension contiguous with marketing. Beyond reimagining the universe or how forces in it might work, Jobs sorted out how minds work, how to sell to consumers, how to manipulate and bully and instill belief. Jobs doesn’t quite get at that most compelling, if sometimes troubling, facet of genius, but it does make sure you think Steve Jobs is troubling in a number of other ways.
That’s not to say the portrait in Joshua Michael Stern’s movie is not sometimes compelling, which it is when the dialogue seeps out and you watch Kutcher inhabit his body. These scenes are occasional in Jobs, and as such, they suggest what might have been. Mostly, these scenes show Jobs walking, or rather, Kutcher walking like Jobs. At this, he excels, sort of loping, sort of lurching, his upper body leaned forward, birdlike, his face set in an unnerving non-smile. Is he conscious of this performance? Does he do it in order to achieve effects? Or is he really so ill at ease in his body?
More than once the film—which covers Jobs’ shape-shifting from college dropout in 1972 (“The system can only produce the system,” he explains, under Cat Stevens’ “Peace Train”) to boy genius to reviled but maybe awesome asshole (his colleagues’ favorite description) as Apple cofounder—falls back on the walk as a means to convey Jobs’ complexity. It’s not a bad trick, either, as the walk, usually barefoot, intimates the man’s simultaneous awkwardness and vibrating internal energies, as if it takes him tremendous effort just to stay on the ground, despite gravity and despite other rules that might apply to other people.
Aside from the walk, the movie never quite communicates this sense of Jobs’ difference, whether perceived by him or those around him. If Jobs is quite convinced of his genius, that he sees what everyone else cannot, the film only expresses this vision in the most mundane ways. During an early college-agey scene, he and his best friend Dan (Lukas Haas), along with Steve’s girlfriend Chris (Ahna O’Reilly), try acid, in the most mundane-movie way possible, lying on their backs with sunlight and clouds above them. Suddenly, Chopin’s “Fantasie Impromptu in C-sharp minor, Op 66” begins, the intricate piano play suggesting—apparently—the intricacy of Jobs’ mind as he stalks through tall grasses, turns his face to the blue sky and opens his arms wide as the camera turns around and around him. “There he goes,” observes Dan.
Um, yes. As a way to suggest intellectual brilliance, you’d be hard-pressed to come up with a less brilliant, more banal scene. Such representational laziness undermines most all of Jobs. Apart from the walking trick, the film mostly overstates, in scenes that leave no question as to his emotional shortcomings. Jobs is unhappy and selfish (he terrorizes Chris when she tells him she’s pregnant), he’s childish (his mom, played by Lesley Ann Warren, makes snacks for an early business meeting), repeatedly cheap and cruel to his Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak (Josh Gad).
By the same token, he’s making his through and into history, his travels designated by the simplest, most Ron-Burgandy-ish visual gestures, bad hair and turtlenecks, Corvettes and Porsches. These signs of time passing and material success accumulating are accompanied, predictably, by scenes that show Jobs alone in his vast home, utterly inept whenever called on to lead a team of workers—unless they genuflect before him, like the young designer Jony Ive (Giles Matthey).
Neither Jobs nor the movie quite acknowledges that he essentially reproduces that very system he condemns. Yes, the machines are lovely, but they are machines and they are designed as means to profits. For all the talk of art, for all the moral tinkering that a melding of art and commerce might invoke, Jobs pursues a bottom line. This may be Jobs’ most impressive insight or the point it misses utterly. That you can’t tell is hardly encouraging.