Tuesday, September 3, 2013

The Cinema File #245: "Jobs" Review


There is a term that is sometimes used in reference to the intersection of technology and business called Betamaxing, inspired by the now obsolete video player that was forced out of the market by its largest competitor, the VHS player. When a piece of technology is said to be Betamaxed, it refers to the point where a technically superior product is surpassed by an inferior one due solely to marketing. In essence, it is when "cooler" matters more to the consumer than "better," or when the two are erroneously conflated. Before his recent death, no one was better at encouraging this false equivalency, and no one more synonymous with the style over substance approach required, than Apple co-founder Steve Jobs. An innovator not so much in the technology he sold but in its commercial viability and potential as a status symbol, Jobs was nonetheless as brilliant as he was complex. Unfortunately, the new biopic bearing his name only scratches the surface.




Jobs follows the titular tech pioneer from his humble beginnings as a scraggly hippy working out of a garage to the height of his career as a scraggly hippy shilling iPods on stage. The film begins with one of Jobs' famous keynotes where he first debuted the revolutionary music player and ends with an aging Jobs recording a voice-over for a commercial reciting a salute to "the crazy ones," as if to bookend the life of a salesman in an inventors clothing. Upon his illustrative return to Apple after being forced out of the company many years prior, he remarks just before assuming the position of CEO that his mission is to make Apple cool again. Not necessarily good mind you, but cool. I don't mean to keep harping on the frivolity, and of course, being a PC guy I'm biased, but I can't help but wonder if the people who made this movie might not be more my people than the typical Mac Head. I've heard a lot of criticism levied against this film for taking too soft a touch, but if anything, it came across to me almost as if the producers of the film had if anything less regard for their subject than I do.


For the first two thirds of the movie, Steve Jobs is basically the villain of the piece, a stubborn man child exploiting the talent of those around him to elevate himself while obsessing over the minutiae of style and discarding once close friends whenever they become inconvenient. He of course is not the one who builds the first Apple computer (that would be the other Steve, Wozniack), and rarely ever comes across as being all that interested in learning the basics of what his business actually does, delegating the leg work while he manages the financial end of things to his benefit at the expense of those he finds expendable. At one point, while heading up a new project coming under a strict deadline, he throws a tantrum over the lack of more than one font installed in a computer where the operating system isn't even completed, and when the best programmer on the team has the temerity to question Jobs' vision as a lack of necessary priorities, he is summarily fired. By the time he's forced out of the company, despite every attempt made to paint it as a raw deal or even a coup, the audience is given every reason to support the decision.


Generally speaking, I don't have a problem with the subject of a biopic being unlikable, even if technically I'm not supposed to completely detest him as a character. Recently Lee Daniel's The Butler presented us with a protagonist whose entire life story ultimately places him on the completely wrong side of history in regards to the Civil Rights Movement, and I found that a novel twist on the biopic formula that all too often forces the world of the film to validate the worldview of its lead. The problem with Jobs is that it steps right up to the edge of this subversive framework, than backs off at the last minute to try and make us support the guy anyway. He starts out as a man so callous that he refuses to acknowledge his own daughter because she would cramp his style, and then we flash forward a decade or so to his triumphant return to Apple, and we're just supposed to assume that whatever happened in the intervening years between his stints with the company was enough to change him into a man worthy of the praise of so many cultish Mac fans. I'm even willing to believe that, but not without seeing it!


Jobs feels like the kind of movie designed to validate whatever opinion you might already have about its subject, without actually saying anything definitive about it. If you're part of the cult of Mac, you'll no doubt groove on the certainty with which Jobs clings to his vision of the home computer's commercial viability in defiance of the short sighted corporate ney sayers all around him. If you're like me, you'll see the petulance simmering just under the surface, and marvel at how someone so immature could get so far in life. I must admit that I am woefully ignorant of the history surrounding this period of home computer innovation, most of my information coming from the last Jobs biopic I saw, The Pirates Of Silicon Valley. What made that movie good was the ensemble, and I wonder if the singular focus of this film might be to its detriment. You get to see many different sides of a man, few of them good in my admittedly biased estimation, but in the end, whether you love the guy or hate him, you're almost bound to be left wanting more.

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