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Review: Alex Gibney’s Documentary Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine Pulls Back the Curtain

6 minute read

The ultra-prolific documentary maker Alex Gibney swings at cultural and political icons like they’re piñatas at a lawn party. Some of his smack-downs are painful than others (i.e. the Oscar-winning Taxi to the Dark Side and its indictment of a morally bankrupt military); some are the proverbial fish in the barrel (Lance Armstrong). But despite his slugging percentage and apparent taste for trouble—one of his other movies ​this year ​is about the Church of Scientology (Going Clear)—Gibney knew he was up against something entirely different with his latest subject. A sacred iCow, if you will.

Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine, which opens in theaters Sept. 4, begins with the Apple founder’s cancer death in 2011. Crowds of mourners, across various international cities, are shown holding up videos of votive candles on their iPads (the disconnect between image and reality being the film’s key theme). On ABC, Diane Sawyer sighs that the passing of Steve Jobs marks one of those moments, “when the whole planet seems to feel a loss together.” On line, Apple-ites are properly stricken. “He made the iMac,” one pre-pubescent techie tells his screen. “He made the MacBook. He made the MacBook Pro. He made the MacBook Air. He made the iPhone … He made everything.”

Well, not quite, as anyone familiar with the Jobs story already knows. But there was, Gibney says, an inseparable association made in the public mind between the machines themselves, and man who made them—perhaps through some manner of sorcery.

Gibney makes the strategically savvy move of injecting himself into his movie, albeit marginally. He admits he loves his iPhone. At the same time, he says that the paralyzing grief felt by some Jobs devotees left him “mystified”—especially since Jobs himself could be so routinely “ruthless, deceitful, and cruel.” Gibney then catalogues just how ruthless deceitful and cruel Jobs could be, in the process scrutinizing Jobs’ virtuosic gift for manipulating minds, media, and, of course, his own image—and creating a parable of power for its own sake.

See Steve Jobs’ Legacy in 16 Photos

Apple Announces Launch Of New Tablet Computer
1976 Apple I was Apple's first computer, which became obsolete within a year. Today, they are auctioned off as collector's items.Justin Sullivan—Getty Images
Steven Jobs
1977 Apple II was the follow up to the Apple I computer. Apple II proved highly successful and spawned several variations.Ralph Morse—The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images
Apple computer Chrmn. Steve Jobs (R) and technician w. new LISA computer during press preview.
1983 Lisa was Apple's office computer that was the first personal computer to use a graphical user interface. It was a commercial flop, largely because it retailed for a whopping $10,000. Ted Thai—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
Steve Jobs ist tot
1991 NeXT Station was a workstation computer manufactured by NeXT, a computer company Steve Jobs founded in 1985 after he was forced out of Apple. After Apple acquired NeXT in 1996, Jobs rejoined Apple. Kristy MacDonald—dapd/AP
Pixar's Toy Story 1995 text
1995 Pixar's Toy Story was the film studio's first feature film in 1995. Pixar had spun out from a larger graphics corporation in 1986 with funding from Steve Jobs. Alan Dejecacion—Getty Images
Foreign media photograph and film the new Apple Co
1998 The iMac was originally released in 1998, and it was the first Mac computer to have a USB drive but no floppy disk. Many media outlets heralded it as a game changer. Over two million were sold in two years. John G. Mabanglo—AFP/Getty Images
FILE PHOTO: Farewell In 2011
1999 The iBook was a line of laptop computers designed for use in schools. The computer, called the "iMac to go," was a huge hit with several upgrades over the years. Ted Thai—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
San Francisco Ca Steve Jobs Apple's Interim CEO Introduces The Macintosh
1999 The Power Mac G3 was a personal computer in the Power Macintosh line. Its upgraded hardware meant it was faster than most other computers on the market. Alan Dejecacion—Getty Images
Apple Unveils iPad 2
2001 Apple opened its first Apple Stores in 2001, with the original two stores in Virginia and California. On the opening day, thousands of Apple fans stood in line and collectively spent over half a million dollars. Justin Sullivan—Getty Images
Apple Launch iTunes Music Store In London
2003The iTunes Store is Apple's online digital media store that redefined the music purchase experience and became a runaway success within years. By 2008, it had become the largest music vendor in the U.S. Ian Waldie—Getty Images
Steve Jobs at MacWorld
2001The iPod followed the release of iTunes and other consumer-facing software. It offered data storage and a sleek design, and soon became the nation's go-to portable music player. Gabe Palacio—Getty Images
Steve Jobs Launches Annual MacWorld Expo
2006 Macbook Pro was Apple's first computer to use Intel Core processors, replacing PowerBook computers. The Macbook Pro line is Apple's latest laptop collection. Justin Sullivan—Getty Images
Apple CEO Steve Jobs Delivers Opening Keynote At Macworld
2005 The Mac Mini was Apple's first consumer-targeted computer to ship without a display, keyboard or mouse, intended to minimize the space taken by a desktop computer.Justin Sullivan—Getty Images
Apple chief executive Steve Jobs unveils
2007 The first iPhone was released after years of speculation that Apple would produce a smartphone. It was known for its large touch screen and finger-touch method, as opposed to using a stylus. It was marketed under the slogan "This is only the beginning." Tony Avelar—AFP/Getty Images
Apple Unveils New Software For iPhone And iPad
2008 The App Store is Apple's online marketplace for downloading and developing apps. It was released alongside its iPhone 3G, and both proved to be massive successes. The App Store logged over 10 million downloads on the first weekend.Justin Sullivan—Getty Images
Apple Announces Launch Of New Tablet Computer
2010 The iPad is an Apple tablet computer that met mixed reviews, as users were not sure if it was intended to replace or supplement laptop use, though many praised its ability to connect to WiFi or 3G. That year, the iPad became the leader in the tablet computer market. Justin Sullivan—Getty Images

The “original sin” of Apple, says Atari co-founder Nolan Bushnell, was the deal over Breakout, a game Wozniak developed and which Jobs then took to Bushnell, who offered Jobs a job. Wozniak was unaware that Bushnell had paid Jobs $5,000 for the work; Jobs told Wozniak they’d gotten $700 and gave his pal $350.

The Breakout deal is not, on its own, a crime of epic proportions, but it’s symptomatic of what Gibney finds fascinating/repellent about his subject—a willingness, even a compulsion, to cheat people even when it gained him next to nothing. He denied Daniel Kottke, one of the earliest members of the Macintosh team, any stock in Apple, for no apparent reason. Bob Belleville, a man seemingly traumatized by his time at Apple, says Jobs was always either “seducing you, vilifying you, or ignoring you.” Much later, ​after Jobs had made his enormous fortune, he faced SEC charges over the back-dating of stock options, an episode for which several longtime employees were thrown under the bus, while the Teflon techie himself remained legally unscathed.

Gibney’s film, for all his spelunking into the life of his subject, isn’t perfect: He never got to some of the people he no doubt wanted to, like Jobs’ widow, Laurene Powell, or Tim Cook, the man now in charge of Apple, or Wozniak (seen in archival footage) or any of Jobs’ competitors. Little that anyone might have said or not is more damning than Jobs’ history with his daughter, Lisa Brennan, the child Jobs denied was his until a paternity test proved otherwise. Jobs himself was adopted, making the whole episode—the then-wealthy Jobs begrudgingly paid his ex, Chrissane Brennan (who appears in the film), $500 a month in child support—both repugnant and strange.

Very little of it is news, though, especially to those who might have read Walter Isaacson’s authorized biography, or even those who saw Jobs, the 2013 movie with Ashton Kutcher, a film that went into much more detail than Gibney does regarding Jobs’ tenure at Apple, his departure, his return, his bringing the company back from the dead and his relationships with the likes of John Sculley, the onetime Apple CEO and Jobs’ bête noire.

The Man in the Machine is more interested in the man than the machine. Or its manufacture. And while Gibney never quite puts it into words, his depiction of Jobs as artistic poseur is the really damning part of the story, the part that reduces Jobs to pathos, far more so than all the collected facts about his business chicanery and interpersonal malfunctions. Jobs made many trips to Japan and India as part of his supposed quest for spiritual enlightenment—something he once claim to have attained, at least to his skeptical guru, Kobu Chino Otogawa. He orchestrated those massive “Think Different” ad campaigns, which co-opted the images of truly great humanitarians such Gandhi, Einstein and Martin Luther King, and artists like Picasso, John Lennon and Jobs’ personal hero Bob Dylan, into tacit endorsements of Apple. In one instance, we hear Jobs claiming that the people who worked for him on the various Macs were the people who, in another era, “would have been painters and poets” but instead they were working on hardware, because that was the world we lived in now, and that’s how Steve Jobs wanted to see it.

As rendered by Gibney, Steve Jobs wanted nothing more than to be an artist, and he succeeded—but only in a world where marketing and hucksterism can be considered art. We may, in fact, live in that world. And if so, Gibney says, we have Steve Jobs to thank.

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