Jobs for the fanboys

Feeble hagiography fails the credibility test

The opening scene of Jobs, the feeble biopic of the iconic Apple founder, is the one that keeps recurring throughout the film, with varying degrees of hagiographical worship, which is never less than lofty.

Steve Jobs, played by Ashton Kutcher, is hunched up and slightly exhausted as he walks into a room full of his Apple employees to introduce the iPod. As he delivers his visionary speech about how machines can touch people's hearts (and maybe wallets), everyone in the room gets up on their feet and starts to applaud. On cue, the camera is trained on their enraptured faces, and for a few seconds they look like subjects of a dictatorial country who unconditionally salute their master at a national parade.

There's no doubt about the real Jobs' genius, and there's no doubt that a film about his life, made only a few years after his death, is predestined to be an exercise in idolatry. But you have to question the plausibility, or rather the ridiculousness, of repeated occurences of employees applauding their own boss, in awe as if seeing God, sometimes almost in tears, as the boss is introducing a product that the people in the room surely know about, and perhaps even have worked on. Jobs' enthusiasm to enshrine Jobs is understandable, even justifiable, but the way the film goes about it is that of a fanboy erecting a statue of his hero, who becomes even more hallowed, saint-like or at least Einstein-like despite _ or actually because of _ his personal flaws.

In short, Jobs is nothing like anything that Jobs created, or would approve of. It's conventional, uninspired, at times sloppy, and at times with a sense of humourless triumphalism. I'm not an Apple apostle, and if you are, you could tell from the start that the film looks average, gauche, so unlike Jobs' influentially sleek, smooth-edged gadgets. The hype that preceded Jobs since it was announced a year ago was also like that that often heralds the new iPhone, and Kutcher (poor Kutcher) was even praised _ even before he acts _ for his resemblance to Jobs! Paying too much attention on looking like the man, Kutcher ends up an inelegant impersonator, with the correct gait and a wrong charisma, a weak man in a weak script.

Besides the scenes of him entering the room to raucous applause, Kutcher also gets to play Jobs as he (repeatedly, again) drives his car alone on the dark Californian highway and scream _ for what? To show that the young Jobs is a determined perfectionist. Nice.

Directed by Joshua Michael Stern from a Matt Whiteley script, the film covers roughly 20 years, spanning from Jobs' formative youth as a university drop-out in the mid-1970s, to his founding of Apple with Steve Wozniak (the impressive Josh Gad) in the garage of his father's house, to Apple's rise in desktop computing and Jobs' own downfall after the board of the company he has created fired him for the debacle with the failed Lisa computers. But since an unhappy ending is not on the agenda, the film ends _ I'm sure this is not a spoiler _ with Jobs' brash return to Apple. Along the way, Jobs behaves like a certified cad to his first girlfriend, calling her pregnancy "your problem", as well as a heartless tyrant to his friends and employees, especially when they can't come up with a nice typeface.

If you've read Walter Isaacson's book Steve Jobs _ actually, if you're not completely oblivious to some aspects of the man's life through various reports_ none of this is a surprise. And while I'm more curious about other details, such as what actually happens after Jobs screams like a madman at Bill Gates on the phone after learning Microsoft might have nicked his idea about an OS, the film shows that in a glimpse without developing the point further, and the scene is suspiciously an excuse to have Kutcher showing off his screaming (again) for our satisfaction. True, Jobs appears to show the dark side of Jobs _ his treatment of other human beings mostly _ but because the film is so fixated on being a hagiography, those personal blemishes feel like a justification of his greatness, a vaccine to the genius. And that's why Jobs makes sure to frame Kutcher next to the portrait of Albert Einstein several times, for fear of us not getting the point. Don't worry, we certainly do. Unlike, say, The Social Network, which takes a look at another pop-cultural and Silicon Valley figure through an ironic jab and complex characterisation, Jobs is flat. The film has a sign board pointing us towards its desired direction, placed on Kutcher's head. The scene of his own employees applauding him takes on the darkest irony _ without the film realising it _ when Jobs does an on-stage introduction of the first Macintosh back in 1984.

His presentation attacks IBM as a giant manufacturer that's trying to control society through its product; Apple, Jobs contends, is a defiant force against the establishment. In the hand of a director with a sense of perspective and sarcasm, this is a telling scene, a crucial moment that defines the transformation of Apple from a rebel, an indie star, into the mainstream powerhouse that dictates the life of so many people that it is now. The point is lost in Jobs, as are many others. Stay hungry, stay foolish, Jobs famously said _ it seems that the film only listens to the latter part.

About the author

Writer: Kong Rithdee
Position: Bangkok Post columnist