Jobs Report

Amy Taubin on Alex Gibney’s Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine

Alex Gibney, Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine, 2015, HD video, color, sound, 128 minutes. Steve Jobs.

ALEX GIBNEY’S twisty, engrossing documentary Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine approaches its subject from an oblique but highly productive angle: Why, Gibney asks, was there a worldwide outpouring of grief when the CEO of Apple, which at that moment in 2011 was the most valuable corporation in the world, died from cancer at the age of fifty-six? Without opening the larger issue of our hysteria-prone society, Gibney examines how Jobs, a storytelling genius, wove a narrative about the machines that Apple produced: a romance in which we are one with our iPhones and iPods and iMacs, and, because Jobs was their human face—and the source of their cool—at one with him as well. Or to paraphrase journalist Joe Nocera, one of Gibney’s many interviewees, Jobs built one of the great myths of the twenty-first century around the iPhone—and it’s just a phone.

Gibney’s doc is getting the jump on Universal’s Steve Jobs, directed by Danny Boyle, written by Aaron Sorkin, and starring Michael Fassbender, which screens in the New York Film Festival October 3 and opens nationwide October 9. If you believe even a teensy-weensy bit that the soul of Steve Jobs inhabits every iPhone, then it must be vibrating in ecstasy at the prospect of being embodied by one of the most attractive and witty actors to grace a movie screen. Fassbender also has a gift for humanizing the cowardly bad behavior of famous men, re: his performance as Jung in David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method (2011). But no actor can beat the revelation of Gibney’s pièce de résistance, a previously unseen video of Jobs testifying at Apple headquarters in 2008 to the US Securities and Exchange Commission in relation to Apple’s backdating of stock options. (Apple threw a high-level employee under the bus, but the government took no legal action against the corporation, perhaps because the law was muddled or maybe because Apple was deemed too big to fail.) At the commission’s request, Jobs begins at the beginning—his life story and Apple’s history made one. Gibney threads the movie with excerpts from the video, thus making Jobs the film’s narrator, against whom a variety of commentators are positioned.

The other running thread is Gibney’s offscreen voice, asking questions and talking about his own relation to Apple. He loves his iPhone, he loves some Pixar movies, but he was still mystified that people mourned Jobs himself. (Incidentally, Gibney’s editing team refused to use Apple’s Final Cut Pro because the latest version is ridiculously dumbed-down.) Although Apple and Jobs’s immediate family refused to participate, likely aware of Gibney’s skewering of corporate greed in Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005) and of a greedy cult in Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (2015), nevertheless the film has a wide-ranging, articulate cast of characters. Among them are technology theorist Sherry Turkle (“He was going for a computer that felt like an extension of the self.… The computer wasn’t just for you, it was you”); the engineer Bill Belleville, who weeps as he tells of how being on the team that built the first Mac cost him everything—his wife, his family, his health—but it was also a chance to do something great; Chrisann Brennan, Jobs’s former longtime girlfriend and mother of his daughter Lisa, who explains that Jobs wasn’t good at relating to people so he envisioned machines that could connect for him.

The first half of the film depicts a complicated, difficult man who chaperoned into being machines that were “paradigm shifters.” Jobs wasn’t an engineer, he didn’t write code, and he never gave sufficient credit to the people who actually built the machines he wanted under his Christmas tree. But he did envision those machines and he brought a fine-tuned aesthetic sense to bear on exactly what they looked like and felt like and their ease of use. In that sense he fit his own definition of being an artist of the twenty-first century. But it’s also clear from the first that the art of which Jobs spoke so seductively was an iteration of mass art. What made Jobs so compelling is that he thought of himself as a poet but his talent was that of an entrepreneur and a pitchman. And it’s the greedy capitalist side of both of those that Gibney foregrounds in the second half of the film—how every time we spend our bucks in an Apple store, we’re given the message that we’re making our life better and thereby bettering the world, when the reality is that our money is going to a company that pays Chinese factory workers the equivalent of $12 to make an iPhone that sells for several hundred dollars.

One of Jobs’s former employees describes how Jobs created a “reality distortion” around him. “If he told you the sky is green, for a while you’d say yes.” There is a stunning moment when Jobs is asked in a video interview about the high suicide rate in a factory that manufactures Apple products, and Jobs gets this smarmy look on his face, like a kid who’s been caught lying and is trying to talk his way out of it. He gives this garbled answer about how the suicide rate at this particular factory is no greater than that in the population at large, ignoring the obvious contradiction that the workers who manufacture the object that supposedly makes the world a better place don’t share that better place themselves. If nothing else, that bit of video makes one understand, more clearly than could any written text, why those who participated in the mass hysteria at Jobs’s death had fallen for a romance that Jobs created. As in any hysterical romance, idolization is a reaction to what the lover must disavow in the love object. Gibney doesn’t quite nail the answer to his initial question. Rather, he throws it back in our lap. I mourned Jobs’s passing because I knew I’d never again possess an object that enthralls me, for better and worse, as does my iPhone 5. In truth, does anyone really love that misshapen iPhone 6?

Alex Gibney’s Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine is now playing in select theaters.