WAS Steve Jobs a brilliant visionary whose singular mind, capable of blending art, technology and commerce as never before, inspired the world to “think different” and changed the way we live?
Or was he a ruthless businessman who treated co-workers callously, took credit for the work of others, and often acted out of jealousy and spite?
Documentarian Alex Gibney is known for pulling no punches when it comes to his subjects, most famously Scientology in his recent “Going Clear.” And so it should come as little surprise that in “Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine,” he comes down heavily on that second, darker image of the Apple CEO. Even if you haven’t read much of the copious material out there on Jobs, who died in 2011, you’ll know some of this, especially his early attempt to dispute paternity of his first child, Lisa, even as he was raking in millions. But though Gibney doesn’t seem to come up with anything truly groundbreaking, there’s surely more negative stuff here — and lots more detail — than you’ve encountered before.
With this, Gibney, a skilled filmmaker, has little trouble holding our attention for more than two hours. But he raises another tantalizing question, and then doesn’t really do enough to answer it: What does our collective adulation of Jobs and his creations say about US? Perhaps it was all too much for one movie.
The film begins, wisely, with the stunning reaction to Jobs’ death of pancreatic cancer, similar to the grief that erupted with the passing of John Lennon — only expressed in 2011 technology. We see the makeshift shrines outside Apple stores, and the ubiquitous hashtag #iSad. A young boy explains, incredulously: “He made EVERYTHING!” On the news, Diane Sawyer speaks of “a global wake.”
How to explain this impact? Gibney gathers footage both of the brash young Jobs with long hair, proclaiming how the computer, once bulky and scary, will change people’s lives, and famously giving the finger to IBM, and the older Jobs, in his second stint with Apple, pacing the stage in his black turtleneck and delighting fans at those much-awaited product launches.
And there are much less flattering elements, in interviews with people who worked with (or loved) Jobs: for example, Bob Belleville, who came over from Xerox in the ‘80s. “How bad could this be?” Belleville recounts thinking beforehand. “I didn’t realize how bad it could be.” The memories cause him to weep.
We hear how Steve Wozniak, the eventual Apple co-founder who began his journey with Jobs in a garage, did much of the work on a video game the duo sold to Atari, but was iced out of most of the money by his friend. And there’s school buddy and Apple employee Daniel Kottke, wondering succinctly: “How much of an asshole do you have to be to be successful?”
Chrisann Brennan, mother of Lisa Brennan-Jobs (Jobs’ daughter did not cooperate with the film; nor did his widow, Laurene Powell, or Apple itself), describes telling Jobs she was pregnant and watching him clench his jaw and slam the door.
There’s also sobering detail on working conditions (and suicide rates) at the Chinese factories where Apple products are made; on a scandal involving Apple stock options; and on Jobs’ zealous pursuit of the tech bloggers who wrote about an iPhone 4 prototype accidentally left in a bar. We’re also told how, contrary to Bill Gates and his huge philanthropy, Jobs ended Apple’s charitable gifts.
Yet there’s admiration, too, for Jobs’ creative mind, specifically the crucial connection he was able to make between a piece of machinery and the human experience it could provide. As the film says of the iPod: “It wasn’t a machine FOR you. It was you.”
And it’s Gibney himself who best describes the lure of a shiny Apple phone.
“I had to have an iPhone,” he says. “My hand was drawn to it like Frodo’s hand to the ring.” Three stars out of four.