Changing what’s possible, in biographic cinema
Steve Jobs biopic delivers on all counts, challenges the genre
Directed by: Joshua Michael Stern
Starring: Ashton Kutcher, Dermot Mulroney, John Gad
Screenplay by Matt Whiteley
The first feature-length biopic about Steve Jobs, the iconic entrepreneur of our times, hit the theatres last week. While the movie comes out a year and a half later than the approved Steve Jobs biography by Walter Isaacson, it is not, in fact, an adaptation of the book. Director Joshua Michael Stern managed to beat the establishment by releasing his own emotional tribute to the creator of Apple computers, an ingenious movie that strays from your typical boring biopic, both in content and in the manner of presentation. The intense criticism that this movie met recently left me very disappointed, as it was clear that neither the critics nor the audience truly got it; most people seemed to get bogged down disputing the factual accuracy of scenes and individual lines, or the prominence of various characters, while ignoring the artistic merits of the movie itself. This movie is a compelling, thought-provoking drama, full of nuance. Akin to Steve Jobs, it challenges the biopic genre, going further on innovation and originality. Whether you’re a Steve Jobs worshiper or not, an Apple fan or a Linux nerd, this movie is a must see.
I found Jobs to be a deeply involved work of art; far from a mere collection of short stories, the movie is an astute, pertinent portrayal of the obsessive, yet brilliant man that was Steve Jobs. Capturing an entire life story, as rich and turbulent as Jobs’ in only two hours was certainly an enormous challenge; and yet Stern delivered, by focusing more on the essence of Jobs’ personality than on long narratives. At a glance, the movie seems fragmentary, like the product of an inexperienced film editor. However, this is quite intentional. The movie speaks volumes not only through what we see, but also through what we don’t. The sudden, almost psychotic shifts in perspective, in story line, the incongruent details that pepper many scenes, begging for questions that most of the time remain unanswered, the emotional extremes, these are all features of Jobs’ psyche. By watching this movie, we experience what it might have felt to be Steve Jobs, a feeling that can be frightful and inspiring at the same time.
The movie follows Jobs from his early days as a college dropout towards the peaks of fame as the front man of Apple, one of the world’s greatest and most recognizable brands. Steve Jobs’ early days are marked by an obsessive search for meaning. He disdains the status quo of professors, of engineers, but he is fascinated by the freedom of artists. He hates the establishment, supervisors, bosses and inefficient teamwork. He longs for creative freedom and financial independence. But Jobs discovers his true calling, leadership, only when he teams up with Steve Wozniak to start Apple Computers. Although the first computer is in fact Wozniak’s brainchild, it is Jobs who recognizes the potential of the technology, and the revolutionary impact it could have on the world.
Once founded, Apple Computers becomes synonymous with Steve Jobs, and everything else becomes secondary. Jobs’ dark side, the ruthlessness and unforgiveness with which he treats every distraction in his path, including friends, family, his pregnant girlfriend, and later employees or colleagues, becomes a haunting leitmotif of the movie, a sharp reminder that greatness requires great sacrifices. As his career at Apple goes through a veritable rollercoaster ride, Jobs remains uncompromising, obsessed with innovation, with delivering a perfect product, with revolutionizing an industry. His final success though comes with a steep personal cost, as he alienates relatives, friends and colleagues, and his public persona continuously expands to fill the depressing void of his private life.
Remarkably, the movie does not become a shameless hours-long advertisement for Apple. We all know that in the first decade of the 21st century, Apple innovated its way to the top, revolutionizing several industries and becoming the most valuable company in the world. This is all contemporaneous common knowledge and the movie only subtly implies it. Similarly, the ending of the movie is abrupt and inconclusive – it simply states “Steve Jobs 1955-2011”. We all know Jobs died prematurely, after a long battle with cancer. This is, again, common knowledge. The quick and premature ending of the movie cleverly mirrors Jobs’ life, leaving the audience to ponder on the meaning of his existence, to judge him or forgive him, to praise him or to pity him, to continue questioning the “whys” and “what ifs” of his story. Delivering a powerful message, without lecturing or patronizing, represents the best accomplishment of the movie.
A large and diverse cast is brilliantly utilized to tell Steve Jobs’ story. The leading man, Ashton Kutcher, is magnificent in bringing to life the title character; this may be his best performance to date. Although no stranger to geeky roles (such as his role in CBS’ “Two and Half Men”), Kutcher went the extra mile for impersonating Steve Jobs. The attention to detail is inescapable: the accent and the way of talking, the wild facial hair and the slumped walk, the emotional volatility and the maniacal gaze, every detail of Steve Jobs that we have seen in video clips throughout the years Kutcher superbly and convincingly reproduces. Of course, Kutcher can’t completely disguise his boyish charm, which was likely not a real feature of Steve Jobs, but this only makes his character more endearing and exacerbates the emotional range displayed.
While Kutcher steals the show by a mile and elevates the entire production, the other parts are also aptly delivered. In fact, all roles are carefully cast with actors closely resembling their real life counterparts. Dermot Mulroney (as the angel investor Mike Markkula) delivers a nuanced performance, centered on the emotional perils of interacting with Steve Jobs on a daily basis. Other aspects of the production are also well researched and delivered competently. The recreation of the 70s and 80s eras abounds in well-placed visual details and nostalgic props, everything infused with a healthy dose of Cat Steven’s lilting music. In addition, an unassuming but highly effective original score by John Debney supplements the soundtrack.
The magnitude of Steve Jobs’ legend and legacy may not be something that can be captured into one movie. Nevertheless, Michael Joshua Stern’s Jobs comes eerily close in capturing the man behind the legend, in all his conflicted brilliance and entrepreneurial genius. As future scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs, or simply, as contemporaries of the digital revolution, you may find not only inspiration in Steve Jobs’ story, and perhaps more importantly, a renewed motivation to excel, to strive for perfection and to change the world. If you only watch one movie this summer, watch Jobs.