The prolific Alex Gibney spares little in his Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine, a documentary examination of the co-founder and chairman of Apple. The 2015 film examines the man who became a cultural icon with precision, leaving concerns of hagiography well off to the side. This is an incisive motion picture, although many will be familiar with the material.
That Gibney adds his own voice to the mix is to his credit, as he essentially embodies the curious Apple faithful. He talks of his questions over the overwhelming global grief when Jobs died and he wrestles with numerous ethical challenges, closing on a somewhat clumsy note about distorted self-perception.
Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine travels anticipated ground, starting with the early days with Steve Wozniak and the creation of the Atari game “Breakout.” Jobs would largely take credit for the game, giving Woz only a fragment of the eventual payout. The documentary covers Jobs’ meeting of Chrisann Brennan and the subsequent birth of his daughter Lisa.
Gibney ventures on from there, whirling through various Apple creations and product launches. He also focuses on the creation of Jobs himself as a figurehead, with numerous visits to Japan coagulating a self-interested notion of spirituality. There’s word of the famed first iPhone presentation along with Jobs’ continued treatment of the now-Goliath company as a start-up and an underdog.
Gibney astutely runs the focus of Jobs’ internal searching through Ram Dass’ 1971 tome Be Here Now, which influenced the Apple co-founder. The director asks the right questions, assembling an impressive array of subjects along the way. He questions Daniel Kottke, one of Apple’s first employees and a friend of Jobs, about fragments of this spiritual quest.
But more than that, Gibney proposes that perhaps Jobs was missing the point. The filmmaker concludes that his subject had the focus of a monk but none of the empathy, which seems a harsh reproach until one considers the evidence. From the absurd profits on iPhones to the simple act of parking in handicapped spaces, Jobs’ personal visage confounds.
And for a man insistent on having his products draw out the “humanity” rather than an Orwellian future, there is even more confusion. Jobs’ struggles with interpersonal relationships have been well-documented, but what The Man in the Machine accomplishes goes deeper. His relationship with the world around him seems at odds with his repeated mantras for his company.
Jobs’ attachment was to aesthetic perfection rather than to such trifles as compassion or family. The Man in the Machine submits this affection was his ace in the hole, confirming that Jobs was less an inventor and more a creator of himself. He sold his vision to the world, while others laboured to make the products.
As Brennan asserts, Jobs “didn’t know what real connection was.” That’s fine irony, given his adoption and how he felt rejected and special all at once. His heartless contempt for his own flesh and blood, detailed without much commentary, provides more insight. And Lisa Brennan-Jobs adds to the echo, wondering through a magazine article about what might’ve been.
Stylistically, Gibney’s documentary isn’t particularly innovative. It uses a sound mix of talking heads, archival footage and beautiful shots of Jobs’ Zen-like fondness for Japan. And it focuses here too on contradictions, as Kobun Chino Otogawa’s teachings go in one ear and out the other.
The issue isn’t whether or not one is free of flaws. The issue is self-awareness and Gibney does well to draw the focus where it belongs. For a man who told the world to “think differently,” Jobs’ eminent inclination to overlook wrongs, lacerate philanthropic programs and shove aside those who did the real world is hard to ignore.
But, as Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine suggests, there’s more to it. People are aware that their iPhones and iPads are made by abused Chinese labourers. They know about suicide nets, double Irish tax avoidance schemes and brutal employee treatment. They know about Woz and about who did most of the real work. And they don’t care, so long as the gadgets continue to shimmer and shine.