Which Steve Jobs do you want to believe in? The artist-technocrat who taught us to think different(ly)? A wizard of wonders — the man in front of the curtain? Or the control freak who mistreated employees and loved ones, whose utopian vision clashed with the realities of running factories around the planet, whose products promise to pull us together yet only seem to isolate us further?
It’s not an idle question. Four years after his death, at 56, unleashed an outpouring of global grief — and when was the last time that happened for a businessman? — Jobs is more than ever an object of fascination. Weighty biographies and breathless business bibles clutter Amazon. Ashton Kutcher played the man in 2013’s “Jobs”; this fall will see Michael Fassbender take on the role for director Danny Boyle (“Slumdog Millionaire”), with a script by Aaron Sorkin from Walter Isaacson’s best-selling book.
Before that happens, here’s the indefatigable documentarian Alex Gibney — whose previous subjects have included Lance Armstrong, Scientology, Julian Assange, Eliot Spitzer, and the guys who ran Enron — to ask “Why did the world weep for Steve Jobs?” Most people post such questions on Facebook. Gibney goes out and makes a movie.
“Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine” is one of the director’s more superficial efforts; it’s watchable but glib. The movie’s not a takedown, nor is it a sanctification. It’s a query, mostly, into why we might resist knowing too much about a person who gave us such marvelous toys. And it’s a reminder of what we need to know about Jobs if we want the complete picture, which is always a good idea.
“The Man in the Machine” cuts a chronological swath through the life, with Gibney interviewing who he can and going to the archives for those he can’t. While he doesn’t sit down with Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak, he knows where to find footage of Woz describing his friend lying about how much they were paid to create the Atari game “Breakout” or saying of the underground “blue boxes” that allowed early hackers to cheat Ma Bell, “Why don’t we sell them?”
In other words, Gibney’s an expert collagist, and he has a knack for the damning sound bite. A fascinating anecdote comes from an old interview with Zen priest Kobun Chino Otogawa, who tells of the young Jobs turning up on his doorstep one midnight, claiming, “I feel I’m enlightened — I don’t know what to do with this.” “Very wonderful,” the priest responds, “I need proof.” Jobs returns a week later with the processor chip for his first computer, the Lisa. “He’s brilliant but too smart, I think,” Kobun Chino concludes.
Jobs initially wanted to call that computer the Claire and tried to talk his pregnant girlfriend into using the name for their unborn child. (He later tried to deny paternity; a DNA test forced him to pay child support.) Author Sherry Turkle is on hand here to opine of the first Macs, “He knew he had created something intimate and it could be sold as something intimate.” Jobs just doesn’t seem to have been very good at intimacy himself.
The portrait that emerges from “Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine” is of a complicated driving force, a wolf industrialist in the sheep’s turtleneck of soft technology and vaguely progressive social ideals. In this, Jobs is no different from other business legends: Henry Ford, Walt Disney, Thomas Edison — the latter his real antecedent in American culture. He just sold his personal brand exceptionally well, seeming to put poetry into machines, turning the product launch into performance art, and creating in every global citizen a hunger for the well-designed gadget. Who else thought to sell computers in different colors, an idea that is quotidian today and was beyond the pale in 1998?
Toward the end of “The Man in the Machine,” Gibney enumerates more serious charges against Jobs: fraudulently backdated stock options, offshore tax havens that include an Irish holding company with millions in Apple profits and no employees, hiding his cancer from shareholders for months while pursuing alternative cures. Worst of all are practices at the Foxconn factory in Shenzhen, China, where employees have allegedly been beaten and where the worker suicide rate is so high the company has installed a safety net beneath the windows.
“What were Steve’s values as a citizen?” Gibney asks. “What were his choices?” Good questions, yet in the words of journalist Joe Nocero, who has aired some of the above charges, “People don’t want to know.” Why? Is it that we love our mavericks too much? That we like the shiny things they create? Toward the end of “The Man in the Machine,” Gibney says we should look for answers in our
iPhones when they’re at rest — at the reflections of ourselves. It’s a start. So’s the movie.