Alex Gibney begins Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine with a first-person voiceover, marveling at the global outpouring of emotion that greeted the Apple leader’s 2011 death. “I was mystified,” he recalls, at the tears shed over someone who was not a pop star or beloved author but merely a man who sold us things. As an iPhone user, Gibney understands there’s more to it than that. But Machine is his two hour-plus corrective to uncritical idolatry of the tech legend, a film that roots around in his misdeeds and mean traits, not in search of a complete portrait, but in the spirit of a Judgment Day prosecutor who knows damn well the defendant was not a holy man.
Those who pay attention to the tech world (or just to Apple specifically) will know much of what they encounter here, and disinterested lay folk will be puzzled by the mostly negative focus on someone they’ve heard is our generation’s genius. As for those people who put candles outside of Apple stores, one assumes they’ll dismiss it as sour grapes or worse. The doc merits seeing it on its terms and should generate plenty of buzz in this Apple-obsessed world, but word-of-mouth may not be kind.
Gibney moves chronologically through Jobs’ life, more or less, making note of some high points but usually digging in only when he has a negative anecdote to tell — as when, according to Steve Wozniak‘s account, Jobs swindled him out of 90 percent of his share of payment for work they did on Atari’s Breakout game. (This, we’re told, is the “original sin” committed even before that famous apple came around.) An exception to this slant is the long stretch in which the film investigates Jobs’ brilliance at selling the concept of the “personal computer” — his insight that people could fall in love if they thought a computer was not a tool for them, but would actually be part of them.
The film will return to this idea occasionally, especially once the iPhone rolls around, but it can’t devote enough time to the intertwining of personal identity and consumer electronics to say anything new on the subject. And even an audience that goes out of its way to see Gibney’s film seems disinclined to grasp this kind of criticism: Within 90 seconds of the director’s funny observation that his hand gravitates to the phone in his pocket like Frodo’s toward the ring, the woman in front of me mechanically pulled hers out to check email.
There are many directions one could have gone in a film examining the societal impact of the gizmos and related philosophies Jobs shepherded into the world — one could, for instance, highlight the paternalism of a company that doesn’t trust its customers to use whatever software they like on the devices they’ve bought. But despite his quick nods to these issues, for Gibney it’s personal.
We hear how Jobs threw a tantrum when his high school girlfriend got pregnant; we’re told that around the time Apple’s IPO made him worth $200 million, Jobs lied in order to deny his paternity and was angry about paying $500 a month in child support. We hear how he alternately cajoled and bullied the tech reporters who were given a misplaced prototype of the iPhone 4, then pushed law enforcement to retaliate by breaking into a reporter’s house and taking crates of possessions. We’re walked through illegal and/or unseemly maneuvering to do with backdated stock options and profits hidden from the taxman.
Gibney is convincing on every front. And while Apple (big surprise) refused to cooperate — meaning that key players like Jony Ive and Tim Cook are all but invisible in this story — he gets enough of Jobs’ collaborators on camera to lend emotional color to the portrait. Friend and early employee Daniel Kottke speaks to his spiritual pursuits; engineer Bob Belleville explains how he used workplace chaos as a tool (and tears up while addressing his mixed emotions about the man); iPhone team member Andy Grignon recounts the Godfather-ish “half-hour mindf—” he received when he said he was leaving the company.
No episode in The Man in the Machine is the kind of minor indiscretion that shouldn’t be included in a historical figure’s biography. The film isn’t petty or mean. But after making his name by digging into world-rattling catastrophes like Enron and sex abuse in the Catholic church, after daring to joust with Scientology’s lawyers, what about this project demanded Gibney’s attention?
Production companies: CNN Films, Jigsaw
Director-Screenwriter: Alex Gibney
Producers: Viva Van Loock, Alex Gibney
Executive producers: Amy Entelis, Vinnie Malhotra, Gaby Darbyshire, Stacey Offman
Directors of photography: Yutaka Yamazaki, Sam Painter
Editor: Michael J. Palmer
Music: Will Bates
No rating, 127 minutes