Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine (2015) / Documentary
MPAA Rated: R for some language
Running Time: 128 min.
Cast: Steve Jobs (archival), Chrisann Brennan, Nick Denton, Jason Chen, Joe Nocera, Kobun Chino Otagawa
Director: Alex Gibney
Review published September 8, 2015
Academy Award winning documentarian Alex Gibney (Going Clear, We Steal Secrets) takes on both the man and the myth that is Steve Jobs, the visionary iconoclast that took the company he co-founded, Apple Computers, from its humble beginnings in a family garage to ultimately become the most profitable corporation in the world at the time of his death on October 5, 2011, losing his battle long-running with pancreatic cancer at the age of 55.
News of Jobs' death spread quickly, and, for someone not generally known to be particularly warm, kind, approachable, or a great philanthropist, the outpouring of emotion for the loss of a corporate CEO seems a bit of a surprise to Gibney, who spends over two hours exploring the question of the root of the connection people who've never met him feel for Steve Jobs that would make them publicly mourn him with tears in their eyes. He didn't save humanity, he mostly made devices that many people use to fill in the boring parts of one's life with an internet search, a podcast or audiobook listen, a picture snap, or a Facetime call to someone across the globe.. Some people may be using one of his devices to read this very review right now. He's a brilliant man, a genius of marketing and design, but what's the personal connection that people feel all about? That's the crux of Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine.
Gibney's film is likely to meet some displeasure among those who idolize Steve Jobs, not because he is not given his proper due in The Man in the Machine, but because it is quite critical of his practices once Apple becomes a major global player and financial success. If anything, while Gibney does dabble with some of Jobs' least appealing of traits, he seems to mostly admire the pioneer's business acumen when he's the David trying to challenge the Goliaths of the world like IBM. However, once that threshold has been crossed, and Apple has become the Goliath, the film switches perspectives on how this company that was once trying to find solutions to everyday problems has become the source of many of those problems.
That's not to say that Jobs gets full-on adulation for his early days, as it is widely reported by all that work for him that he is incredibly hard to deal with, even those he grew up with, while Jobs' ex-girlfriend from way back, Chrisann Brennan, recounts what made her so attracted to Jobs for all of his immense strengths, then what made him impossible to live with. Things really strike a sour note for Jobs when it is revealed that he threw a bit of a tantrum upon learning Brennan was pregnant because it threatened to take away from the work he had been doing in the garage, while also claiming later in court that Brennan was highly promiscuous (she wasn't) and that their daughter, Lisa, wasn't his (she was).
The Man in the Machine also takes a look at how Jobs had been highly influenced by his trips to Japan, including his desire to do what Sony had done with their Walkman, which sold the most units of just about any consumer product in history at that time. That, along with his fascination with Buddhist philosophy, where keeping things simple and with beautiful form, helped shape his own philosophy on his approach to products, where design is preferable to content.
As Jobs drove Apple to the top business in the world, he became the very thing he railed about. Gibney astutely starts his film showing how Steve Jobs and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak broke into technology, by making 'blue boxes' which simulated ringtones that allowed them to make long-distance phone calls to anyone in the world for free, effectively ripping off major telecommunications corporations without much care. The end of the film shows the flip side of Jobs, now the major corporation CEO, deeply upset to the point of revenge on a tech journalist who had gotten his hands on a prototype of the yet-to-be-release iPhone 4 that an Apple employee had accidentally left behind in a bar. The reporter's house was broken into with a battering ram by a special law enforcement task force funded by the tech industry, including Apple, and lots of his personal items were confiscated in an apparent raid.
Later, Jobs and company continued to screw over people by finding loopholes in the tax system that had nearly all of their profits tied to nearly phony businesses overseas, and employing back-dating to stock options to foster loyalty among the elite inner circle of the company. Jobs punished employees who took employment with other companies, to the point where Apple entered into an ethically dubious practice among the major tech companies to not hire each others' employees. Jobs' paranoia and need to control extended to all aspects of his life, especially in how he dealt with representatives of tech media, allowing access for those who wrote favorably and dutifully in favor of Apple, while those who would shine a more critical eye were denied any further information or invitations to Apple events. Apple's profit margin per device is sky high, yet they continue to manufacture for miniscule fractions of the cost at cramped factories in China (Foxconn), where their workers slave for long hours with almost no pay, and some are even subject to beatings for losing any of the equipment Apple wants to keep top secret.
Apple devotees, sheep-minded consumers who bash any reporter in comment section online for daring to try to taint the image of their beloved company, will likely not be the audience for Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine, as it shows both the good and the bad on the tech genius' drive, determination, and dedication to success at the expense of most other things most of us hold value for. The 'Cult of Apple' is a phrase that has taken root over the last ten years, as die-hard Apple consumers bestow a near religion-like devotion to brand and speak about Steve Jobs in the same manner as a member of a religious cult might speak upon their spiritual leader.
The Man in the Machine isn't a perfect documentary. It does seem to be occasionally unfocused, meandering quite a bit into areas that one might not think should merit so much time to explore, especially on one employee's experience at Foxconn that, while harrowing and unnerving, one can't quite attribute to Steve Jobs as a person. Even something like the stock backdating, which there is no evidence that Jobs promoted shown in the film, seems a reach on a movie with the man's name on the title, which does tend to weaken the film's grasp. Perhaps had the film been about Apple, the company, and not Steve Jobs, the man, this would have been more resonant. At over two hours in length, it can make for a tedious watch for those genuinely uninterested or unimpressed with the devices that Apple promotes (many of which, such as tablets, they were not the first to invent).
Though I do believe an anti-corporate documentarian like Gibney would have been better served to do an Apple expose instead of a history of Steve Jobs that eventually turns into one, given how difficult it is to divorce Steve Jobs from the company he helped build, one can understand the confusion in the overall scope. However, The Man in the Machine is still absorbing a good deal of the time, and skillfully presented, even if indulgent, and, for those who follow the tech industry, it's often very illuminating, both about the Steve Jobs mythos, but also about us, as consumers.
Jobs may forever be an enigma, no matter how many factoids we might learn about this very complicated, and very contradictory man from his movies, but by studying the way the products he sold helped to shape the way we communicate to one another, and how we perceive our own world using them, we might come away learning a great deal more about someone more important to us than Jobs: ourselves. Given that Jobs designed his devices to be an extension of, and perhaps a reflection of ourselves, I think Gibney's film does answer the question, even if indirectly, on why we love Steve Jobs: if the products he made are extensions of who we are, and we love ourselves, surely we should love the products the man designed with our narcissism in mind. Uncompromising pioneer or belligerent jerk, who else but a complete narcissist would have had the foresight to see that we are all narcissists ourselves?
©2015 Vince Leo