Film Review: Jobs

Terrific dramatization of late Apple founder Steve Jobs’ rise from inspired, art-inclined hippie to corporate mogul and King of Cool delivers “Mac”-nificently and should gratify everyone from die-hard geeks to gawkers curious about entrepreneurial success

While not quite achieving the heights of cool that The Social Network managed with its slyer journey to a similar high-tech summit, the more conventional Jobs nevertheless entertains, instructs and inspires. Much credit goes to Ashton Kutcher as Steve Jobs, in a role abetted by a strong supporting cast, a solid script from newbie Matt Whiteley, and Joshua Michael Stern’s direction.

The plot distills key moments in Jobs’ professional rise, fall and second rise from the 1970s to the 2000s, as it delivers a career arc and personal portrait laid out in much greater detail and through to Jobs’ tragic death in Walter Isaacson’s best-selling biography Steve Jobs. (Aaron Sorkin’s adaptation for Sony is reportedly in development.)

Lest attention-challenged viewers grow weary with young Jobs’ Apple climb, an initial scene briefly flashes forward to the mogul’s stunning 2001 introduction of the world-changing, record industry-crushing iPod before landing back in the ’70s to Jobs’ time at Reed College. There, he learns the importance of calligraphy but holds the view that higher education comes at the expense of experience. Stung by the spiritual bug, he’s off to India with pal Daniel Kottke (Lukas Haas) for mystical enlightenment.

Settled back by 1976 in his supportive parents’ (John Getz and Lesley Ann Warren) modest home in Silicon Valley, Jobs lands a boring gig at Atari working on videogames. Here first signs emerge of his storied confrontational style, mania for perfection, and ability to use people.

Connecting with hometown pal and prototypal geek Steve Wozniak, known as Woz (Josh Gad), Jobs enlists his help with an Atari task. A brilliant engineer who builds motherboards, Woz introduces Jobs to the possibility that a computer terminal can be hooked to a TV monitor that can display data in real time.

The idea of a personal computer for the home takes root, as Jobs partners with Woz to build it in the legendary Jobs garage. At a computer gathering, the pair generate no interest in their machine, but a demonstration at a Stanford University show gives them the connection and few bucks they need to buy parts for their invention and sell some units. The pair’s small, ragtag development team includes Chris Espinosa (Eddie Hassell), Bill Fernandez (Victor Rasuk) and ultra-cool easy-riding Rod Holt (Ron Eldard), a gifted technician.

As their machine gains sophistication and interest, Jobs demonstrates considerable skills in promotion, negotiation and design. But to get the job done the way he wants, he bullies and shortchanges.

Pivotal moments are many. Jobs and Woz agree on the Apple name and get an unexpected visit from Mike Markkula (Dermot Mulroney), a “suit” from Intel who got word of Jobs’ work and becomes their money guy. The company goes public, Jobs introduces the Apple II at The Computer Faire in the late ’70s, Apple is a success and Jobs is rich by 1980.

Failures follow. The early ’80s has Jobs’ dream computer Lisa never materializing and he tangles with Apple board chairman Arthur Rock (J.K. Simmons) over Lisa’s development costs and Apple’s disappointing earnings. And Jobs’ appointment of ex-Pepsi-Cola head John Sculley (Matthew Modine) to Apple CEO is disastrous. Sculley wins over the Apple board and eventually ousts Jobs from the company.

But, returned from exile, Jobs lands back at Apple as CEO and launches the great Mac, with teammates old (like Chris) and new whizzes like Burrell Smith (Lenny Jacobson), and the storied “1984” campaign that put Macs on many a table.

Kutcher, whether conveying Steve Jobs’ inner sparks of inspiration or outer explosions of rage and insults, displays never-before-seen acting chops. Gad secures his “geek” space (launched in The Internship) as Woz and vet actor Ron Eldard is perfect as the handsome biker with technical genius. Others, like McDermott, are also up to their “jobs.”

Also evoking tech’s historical era are the canny production design and rich music soundtrack (with Bob Dylan and Cat Stevens cuts especially apt). Stern’s approach sometimes gets dangerously conventional (a torrential nighttime downpour underscores one of Jobs’ biggest setbacks), but a lot of detail is nicely handled.

But Jobs’ appeal seems assured, supported by Apple users and fans and all those interested in business dynamics, especially as fueled by digital’s rise. And aren’t a good number of the many readers of Isaacson’s bio sure to drop in?

One question is how Jobs might impact Sony’s Sorkin project, which reportedly will focus in real time on only three key moments in Jobs’ career. Will this Jobs generate more interest in a second biopic or short-circuit that Sony cinematic motherboard?