At the beginning of the documentary “Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine,” director Alex Gibney, in a voice-over, confesses his mystification at the global outpouring of grief immediately following the 2011 death of the legendary cofounder of Apple. He was a man, after all, who “sold us things.”
But, as the documentary amply demonstrates, those “things” were conceived and marketed in a way that was unprecedented. The Macs and iPhones and all else were designed not simply as extensions of who we are. They were designed to be us. The gleaming, palpable, almost sensual aspect of these machines was integral to their mystique. Even Gibney, whose hard-eyed gaze bores through so much of Jobs’s mythmaking, admits that his hand is perpetually pulled to the phone in his pocket like Frodo’s toward the Ring.
There is practically nothing in this film that was not already raked over in Walter Isaacson’s 2013 biography or in the many thousands of articles about Jobs over the years. But there is something about seeing and hearing this story onscreen – it utilizes clips of Jobs himself, and of his many co-workers and associates – that sets it apart. (There has already been a marginal 2013 biopic starring Ashton Kutcher; a new one, starring Michael Fassbender, based on Isaacson’s book, is coming out later this year.) Some have questioned why Gibney, given what we already know, would bother to make this film. A more pertinent question might be, Why not?
Gibney does a fairly thorough job delving into Jobs’s more nefarious transgressions. But the central, implicit insight of this film is that it doesn’t much matter what Jobs’s vices were. The people who wailed at his death, most of whom never knew him but only used his machines, were bemoaning the loss of a techno-oracle who, in their eyes, understood their deepest desires better than they themselves did. It was Jobs’s genius to locate the soul in the machine – and then market it accordingly.
The accounting of his life story, as it unfolds in the film, is grounded in the brutal realities of corporate skulduggery. I’m a big fan of Balzac’s maxim that “behind every great fortune is a great crime,” and if nothing in Jobs’s history qualifies as a great crime, there is certainly a long trail of extreme misdeeds.
According to the film, he swindled Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak out of 90 percent of his share for the work they did on Atari’s Breakout game. Ascending to the top at Apple, he discontinued its philanthropic activities. He indulged in massive corporate tax evasion, backdated stock options, and paid the Chinese workers who put together most of his products a pittance while neglecting their serious on-site health concerns. When a misplaced iPhone 4 found its way to some tech reporters before its official release, he retaliated by having the police batter down the door to a journalist’s house and cart away many of his possessions. He did this when he was seriously ill from cancer, with about a year to live.
On the personal front, we hear how Jobs, who had been given up for adoption, at first refused to acknowledge the daughter, Lisa, he had by his girlfriend, only letting up on the lawsuits when a DNA test confirmed her paternity. At a time when he was worth more than $200 million, he grudgingly forked over $500 in monthly child support.
A devotee not only of Bob Dylan but also of Ram Dass’s “Be Here Now” philosophy, Jobs had early on entertained the idea of becoming a monk. When his Zen Buddhist mentor, Kobun Chino Otogawa, asked him for proof of the enlightenment he professed to have achieved, Jobs responded by presenting him with a chip for a new personal computer (named, enigmatically enough at the time, Lisa).
Otogawa’s assessment of Jobs: “He’s brilliant, but he’s too smart.”
In our winner-take-all culture, in which success is all that really counts, none of this probably matters to most people, least of all those who worship Apple – i.e., Jobs. Like his machines, he is supposed to answer to a higher power, a higher ideal.
The anthropomorphism of technology has always been a staple of science fiction, but in the present day this phenomenon is best exemplified by Jobs and what he tapped into. “Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine” is ultimately about us and not about him. Grade: A- (Rated R for some language.)