The Rotten Side of Apple’s Founder
New documentary Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine digs into the human imperfections at the heart of the ever-popular brand
Director Alex Gibney is not one to shy away from controversy. From his award-winning documentary on corporate greed Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, to Going Clear, his exposé on Scientology based on Lawrence Wright’s book due out later this year, Gibney often gets to the heart of our culture with a surgeon’s scalpel and objective eye. His latest film, Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine, which premiered recently at SXSW, is both a meditation on our relationship to the Apple devices that have conquered the world and a biography of the company’s titular founder and late CEO. The overarching premise is apparent from the title: the film asserts that Steve Jobs is still a presence in the technology we use every day.
The filmmaker's jumping off point is the international outpouring of love and mourning after Jobs’s death in 2011. The reaction was similar to the loss of a pop star or head of state. Gibney is mystified that a capitalist mogul could elicit such a global wake. Who was he? Was he worthy of this adulation? And if he was not as benevolent as we thought, how does that make us feel about our gadgets? What if the man in our machines just wasn’t such a great person?
The film doesn’t shy away from the ugly side of Jobs. Gibney dredges up some of the darkest parts of Jobs’s history including his litigious denial of paternity to his daughter, Lisa; the stock backdating scandal of the early-2000s; the suicides at Chinese Apple iPhone supplier Foxconn; and even the time he purportedly convinced a California law-enforcement agency to break down the door to a tech journalist’s home. These are perhaps the most lascivious topics covered, though little new is revealed. The rest is an exploration of the broken relationships that litter Jobs's meteoric career.
The only new tidbit I absorbed was a story recounted by Chrisann Brennan, the woman Jobs fought in court over the paternity of their daughter, Lisa. Jobs brazenly named the computer he worked on just before the Macintosh after Lisa, even while fighting to prove he wasn’t her father. According to Brennan in Man in the Machine (as well as in her 2013 memoir), Jobs came to see her a few days after the baby was born to help pick out a name, initially suggesting Claire. She later found out that, internally at Apple, the project Jobs was working on had been called “the Claire.” After this, he went back to the company, and worked to change the name to “the Lisa.”
This story speaks volumes as to Jobs’s persona. It was not, admittedly, the way a father's mind should work; but it's also not the way most minds work. Crucially, Jobs's instincts were different, with often brutalizing effects on those close to him. Put succinctly in the film, Jobs “had the focus of a monk, but none of the empathy.” This is not to excuse who he was when he was at his worst, but it simply points out that trying to understand Jobs in the way that one attempts to understand oneself is a fools' errand.
Alex Gibney, courtesy of Jigsaw Productions
In trying to understand Jobs, Gibney attempts to understand his own reliance on the shiny, beeping devices released under the legendary CEO’s aegis. The film concludes with a monologue by Gibney, delivered while looking into his iPhone and seeing himself reflected back. In the end, he claims to draw no conclusions, to have no answer. Maybe the phone is just a phone, or maybe it's a piece of Steve Jobs and his legacy. (Gibney’s own image is then replaced with Jobs’s, which drives this point home.)
While Gibney’s exploration of his personal relationships to myriad Apple products is compelling, the biographical narrative of the film is a bit sloppy. Many scandals are loaded into the film's final third, rattled off one after the other. One of the stories highlighted seems just as cheap as when it initially came to the fore. In 2009, Jobs took a leave of absence as CEO of Apple due to undisclosed health issues. At the time, this resulted in much ghoulish reporting on how long Jobs had to live. The company was pilloried for not discussing the matter publicly. The prevailing argument for such a disclosure, rehashed by Gibney, was that Jobs had shareholders to answer to. Even in this unflattering portrait of Jobs as a raging capitalist with blood on his hands, siding with shareholders in a dispute over how many days the CEO had left on Earth feels at best uncomfortable, and at worst, gross.
The film is by no means a comprehensive portrait of Jobs, though it features a number of interesting new interviews with those close to him, like the aforementioned Brennan, iPod chief Jon Rubinstein, and Macintosh engineering head Bob Belleville. Gibney also speaks with journalists who covered Jobs over the course of his life and career, like Joe Nocera and Yukari Iwatani Kane. Mostly though, it seems Gibney set out to make a negative portrait of Jobs, and he succeeds. If that shocks people into questioning their relationship with technology, then perhaps it’s a worthwhile approach.
At its most poignant, Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine gets close to the philosophy of objects and intimacy. If we know the provenance of our devices, and all the lives that have been ruined (and in some cases, tragically ended) to get them into our hands, can we still view them as magical? Personal? What does that say about us? This line of questioning is where Gibney's film truly shines, even if he comes up short on answers. As a biography, though, it’s incomplete and perhaps a bit tarnished. Just like, it seems, the legacy Jobs left behind.