At the point of his untimely death in 2011, Steve Jobs was the very face of the soaring tech juggernaut Apple. The iPod, the iPhone, the iPad, they were all his.
But back in 1974, Steve Jobs was just another aimless guy. Even though he had already dropped out of school, he still wandered barefoot around the campus of Reed College. He’d sleep over on a couch in the student rec center, pick up any cute co-ed he could interest in a quick roll in the hay, sit in on random classes, and maybe drop some acid with his friend Daniel and his pretty-regular squeeze Chrisann.
He was a laid-back dude with a mind gently clouded by weed, an ethos gently inspired by Eastern spiritualism and a gentle desire to, uh, somehow change the world, man. But, hey, nothing had really grabbed his interest quite yet.
Then, while working on a video game tweak for the job he landed at Atari, he turns to his pal Steve Wozniak for help. Woz is a guy who loves fiddling with solder and circuit boards, capacitors and silicon chips. And while hanging out at his pad, Steve notices this homemade contraption of Woz’s that sets his inner circuits buzzing. It’s just a keyboard thingamajig that connects to a small TV monitor. Something Woz pooh-poohs as a tinkerer’s hobby. But Steve sees something more.
What Steve envisions is a typewriter connected to a screen. No, even bigger. It’s a device that could condense all the processes of a room full of whirring computers down into something you could put in your living room. Not just a game, mind you, but something you can work on, write on. Change the world on.
Woz is reluctant. But Steve is persuasive.
“If we’re gonna do this thing, we need to come up with a name,” Woz ventures. And Steve agrees, offering up Apple. Hey, he figures, it’s something delicious and healthy, and a biblical symbol of new birth. “That is so much better,” Woz admits, “than Phaser-Beam Computers.”
Though this biopic depicts Steve Jobs as a guy who has a difficult time with relationships―turning his back on loyal friends, abandoning his pregnant girlfriend and bluntly firing questioning employees―he’s also a man with a unique ability to inspire and lead. He has a vision. He values quality far above profit and usefulness far above quantity.
Steve’s adoptive parents are good people who offer their garage for the beginning steps of Steve’s company and readily comfort their son when the, er, chips are down. Friend Daniel is a nice guy too. And we see him pick up the emotional pieces with Chrisann, whom Steve has shunted aside. (Later in the film, it’s revealed that Steve reconciles with Chrisann and finally welcomes her and her daughter into his life.)
We hear mentions of a monk who teaches at Reed College and see Steve sitting in on a cross-legged spiritual lecture being given by an Indian guru. Steve also journeys to India, implicitly in search of that same kind of spiritual inspiration.
We see Steve in bed with a couple of different women (once with him shirtless). And just as Apple is getting off the ground, Chrisann comes to Steve with the fact that she’s pregnant with his baby. He quickly refuses any responsibility. “I’m sorry you have a problem,” he tells her. “But it’s not happening to me.”
A pinned-up poster of a bikini girl “graces” an engineer’s office wall. Woz tells some lame jokes, one of which revolves around a crude sexual innuendo.
Two very blatant f-words. About 15 s-words. We also hear a half-dozen uses each of “d‑‑n,” “a‑‑,” “h‑‑‑”and “b‑‑ch.” Jesus’ name is blasphemed four or five times, and when a surprised Apple employee looks up to find Steve standing at his desk and blurts out, “Jesus!” Mr. Jobs’ simple reply is, “No, it’s just Steve.”
When Steve drops acid, it’s depicted as an enlightening and mind-opening moment for him, even a positive turning point in his life. He also smokes marijuana, as do his friends. And several people puff on cigarettes. Beer and mixed drinks are downed.
Even after a paternity test indicates that Steve is the father of Chrisann’s daughter, he denies any connection. He declines any paternity rights and tosses aside a letter that the young girl sends him a few years later. It’s no surprise, then, that Steve isn’t always the most up front or honest individual. When agreeing to share the fee for a project with Woz, for instance, the two friends split $700, even though Steve actually received $5,000. Later, when the growing Apple company is going public, Steve arbitrarily denies some of the hardworking founding members any share in the stock profits.
Life and movies. They can both be filled with frustrating contradictions.
On the surface, a man can appear to be a visionary dreamer devoted to beauty, to balance, to quality, to innovation. But at the same time he can be a petty, self-centered jerk who pushes away his friends, ignores his responsibilities and rejects family—an oblivious, just-shy-of-psychotic dude who worships at his own little temple of me.
A film about such a soul can strive to address a complex individual. It can contain believable-looking performances and tell you it’s weaving a compelling tale about someone standing on the shadowed crossroads of ambition and failure, unwavering belief and brilliance. But it can simultaneously be little more than cinematic Photoshopping, a barely perfunctory, just-scratch-the-surface gimcrack. It can be riddled with foul language, and rife with casual acceptance of sex and drug abuse, bereft of any true depth in its relationships. It might, in short, deliver no more than the paper-thin trivia you might find on your nearest wiki page.
The biopic Jobs is just such a film. And it blandly tells us, with an uninspired craft that the real Steve Jobs would likely have disdained, that he was just such a man.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.