Alex Gibney’s new documentary about Steve Jobs begins in grief and ends with the cold, black and impenetrable visage of the iPhone itself – an object Gibney is convinced holds the key to answering the riddle of the man. Gibney ends the film still not exactly sure that’s the answer.
The early scenes – of weeping crowds the world over building shrines outside of Apple stores after Jobs’ death in 2011 – are remarkable. In voice over, Gibney confesses that he is a devoted iPhone owner, caught up in the cultural phenomenon of Apple and its ecosystem of tech products. But the global emotional outcry over Jobs’ passing even struck him as bizarre. Steve Jobs: The Man In The Machine represents Gibney’s effort to determine just what is happening.
His approach is more thematic pastiche than coherent plot. He works through certain episodes in Jobs’ life, then doubles back to dig into things going on under the surface. The highlights will be familiar to anyone who has poked around Jobs’ biography: His early life in Cupertino, his friendship with Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, and the creation of the company in Jobs’ basement. There’s Jobs’ early trip to India, his later pilgrimages to Japan, his early girlfriend Chrisann Brennan and their child, Lisa. Then there’s his eviction from Apple, his triumphant return, and the company’s various corporate shenanigans.
What stands out about Gibney’s take on all this is his knack for finding the perfect moment to illustrate a particular facet of Jobs’ nature. And the excavation is pretty brutal. In one poignant anecdote, we find out that even back when they were both young men slaving away for Atari, Jobs screwed Wozniak out of thousands of dollars of income by lying to him about the size of the paycheck for a particular gig.
The most searing moments are the ones Gibney spends with Chrisann. Her description of Jobs’ reaction to the news that he was going to be a father – the physical, almost animal panic that came over him – is mesmerizing. It’s known that Jobs refused to think of himself as a father to the child for a long time, but Gibney reveals he evened claimed to be infertile at one point to get out of paying child support. It certainly wasn’t a financial issue – Apple went public around the same time, making Jobs worth around $200 million – but rather Lisa’s arrival seems to have violated the foundations of Jobs’ self-perceived personal narrative. “Apple was a 30-year sitcom,” one friend observes. “And Steve was the main character.”
This sort of stuff often gets chalked up to the contradictions of the creative genius: Bob Belleville has a long and moving dialogue with Gibney about his work at Apple, which came at the cost of Belleville’s marriage and family life. Yet the man remains moved by Jobs and what they accomplished together, telling Gibney through tears that, “no one else could’ve done it.” I can understand this: I own an iPhone myself and rely on Apple’s products. And when I consider the role these gizmos play in my life, there are hints of Jobs vision in there: the idea of the computer as an extension of the self, or a bicycle for the mind, as Jobs put it.
But as Gibney keeps digging, a considerably darker vision emerges, one of a profoundly lonely and broken man, able to connect to his fellow humans only through the devices he created. On more than one occasion, my friends and I have taken vacations where we’ve purposely disconnected ourselves from the digital communications grid, and stacked all our iPhones in a corner to be left unused. Like Jobs himself, the iPhone is an isolating device as much as an enriching one.
So the global mourning over Jobs’ death emerges, not as a tribute to a saint or visionary, but as a kind of necessary counter-reaction to Jobs’ isolation and inability to connect on a human level. The black hole at the core of the man was of such scale that only such an outpouring of grief on the level of technological collective connectivity could fill it. The testament to Jobs’ creative and intellectual prowess is that he was actually successful in wringing what he needed out of us.
By the time Gibney reaches the later years, the film begins to lose steam, and becomes an episodic rehash of Apple’s wage collusion scandal, the stock backdating, and the massive exploitation of Chinese workers. But perhaps the exhaustion is the point. Seeing Jobs grinning like a kid over the latest iPhone release inspires not disillusionment or anger, but a deep melancholy.
The flippancy with which Jobs, who got so personally invested and weepy over Apple’s famous “Think Different” advertisement, discusses the suicides of workers at Foxconn, the massive Chinese manufacturer that puts together much of Apple’s product line, is certainly striking. Jobs eliminated Apple’s philanthropic work when he returned as CEO, and a friend who accompanied him on that early trip to India comments that, “Feeding the poor – those were not Steve’s values.” What really seems to have attracted Jobs is the amoral focus on the remaking of the self that he perceived in Zen Buddhism, an approach its own practitioners would certainly take issue with. “He’s brilliant but not too smart, I think,” muses one monk whom Jobs tried to take on as a sort of guru.
The stock backdating seems especially telling in that regard. Jobs wasn’t greedy, he just wanted to give Apple’s artists and inventors, Jobs’ “family,” as he tellingly referred to them, the treat he felt they deserved. It was a way for Jobs to bend the real world to conform with the emotional narrative in his head of creativity richly rewarded, never mind the dangerous financialization of the socioeconomic fabric the practice represents. Jobs seems almost miffed that concerns about legality could intrude on such pristine motivations.
At this point Gibney has proven himself one of our most valuable documentary filmmakers, right up there with Errol Morris. And while Steve Jobs: The Man In The Machine may not be quite as rich or focused as Gibney’s work on Enron or Wikileaks, it is still a powerful and haunted work, one that cuts into us as deeply as it cuts into its subject.