Joshua Michael Stern’s new film about Apple co-founder Steve Jobs (played by Ashton Kutcher, of all people, but more on that later) bookends with the press conference in which he announces the iPod .mp3 music player in 2001. Such is one of the most problematic clichés of the biopic, stopping at a moment of great triumph after a tumultuous mid-life crisis. Hollywood story structure obfuscates the sociological realities of success, leading to the sort of hero worship that the cult of Jobs has produced, magnified by this film’s inane design.
The film commits almost all of the other standard sins of the bio-pic, most egregiously isolating the genius from the rest of his sociological reality. Shockingly, for a film made in 2013—that is, a full half-century after the publication of Bette Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique—there are only three female characters, only two of whom are allowed to utter words. At the beginning, we meet the hippie Jobs’ teenage girlfriend, who gets pregnant, and because of this, booted out of the house where Jobs and Steve Wozniak are inventing the home computer and creating the Apple brand. Then, more than a decade later, we see, but do not meet, Lisa, the abandoned child, now inexplicably sleeping on the couch in Jobs’ living room. Shortly thereafter, we meet Jobs’ wife, who is given less than one minute’s screen time. The movie has us believe that Jobs’ creativity is at the expense of, not inspired by, human connection.
Jobs wants us to believe the standard American Dream mythmaking, that we should forgive great geniuses their sins because their contributions to the world trump all other bad behavior. This seems precisely backwards. It is people’s good behaviors that produce genius in the world. Albert Einstein—whose picture proudly hangs above Jobs’ bed in his garish mansion—should not just be remembered for the theories of relativity, but also for his personal courage in collaborating with his scientific colleagues to write President Roosevelt, warning him of the atomic powers Nazi physicists were rapidly uncovering. In the case of Jobs, the hero worship centers on his maniacal vision, damning all human relationships around him. This positions inventions like the Apple II, Macintosh, iMac, iPod, iPhone, and iPad as acts of personal daring, Yet, do you hear how the word “I” comes to overwrite all else in this sequence of Jobs innovations? What if Jobs’ personal flaws—egotism, selfishness, monomania—are not tangential, but central to the innovations themselves? What if those who we laud for changing the world have in fact rendered it less verdant?
In his book on success, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell argues that the great innovators of the 1970s computer revolution—Jobs, Bill Gates, Paul Allen—are not merely geniuses. They are instead part of a sociological accident. Around 1975, microprocessor home kits—such as the Altair 8800—allowed a small sliver of one demographic to develop thousands of hours of expertise in computing. These men—why were they all men?—were just young enough to not have families to “distract” them, and just old enough to be out of their parents’ house, with access to disposable income to spend on electronics toys. All of them were born in a less than two-year window between 1955 and 1956. Gladwell argues that these titans of industry are not heroes in any sort of mythical sense, but instead people of mere above average intelligence whose success is attributable to an astonishingly bizarre amount of sociological happenstance. A Hollywood film built upon individual success myths will not, cannot tell you this truth about fame and fortune.
Which brings me to Ashton Kutcher’s role embodying Steve Jobs, which I consider to be the only redeeming facet of this wretched film. Apparently, most people find the star of Dude, Where’s My Car? and Demi Moore’s boy crush a preposterous choice to embody the great and powerful Jobs. I instead believe it is the only component of the film that allows sociological realities to overwhelm individualist fantasies. For Kutcher in the film is not so much a good actor embodying an historical figure, but instead a television personality carrying a commercial entertainment. As Walden Schmidt on CBS’s megahit sitcom, Two and a Half Men, Kutcher is endearing as a boyish computer genius whose billions of dollars of earnings allow him to buy the defrocked (and in the show, dead) Charlie Sheen’s house in Malibu, salvaging the comic machinery for more countless years of astronomical profit-making. Given a choice between Jobs’ alienating 21st century of iPhones and iPads—furthering his personality traits of isolation and suspicion on a global scale—I will take the small pleasures of Kutcher’s 1950s sitcom antics any time.