Director Alex Gibney is no stranger to controversy and neither is the focus of his latest film: Steve Jobs: Man in the Machine. Here Gibney dissects the legendary founder of Apple Computers’ famous and often overstated personality, taking the statue of a cult icon and attempts to bring it down with shattering might.
But Gibney is a documentation, after all, practically a film essayist, and sometimes you have to challenge the status quo. He’s dismantled the corporate greed in Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2003), the Iraq War in Taxi to the Darkside (2007), lobbyist Jack Abramoff in Casino Jack and the United States of Money, and even dug deep with Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer (both 2010). Just this past year he took on Scientology in Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (2015).
So, it should come to no surprise that Gibney would take on the beloved icon and influential man behind Apple, currently the world’s biggest company. This scathing doc arrives to a culture saturated by Jobs myths, propaganda, admiration, and idolatry. Gibney gives a biased but refreshing look at the man behind Apple, coming just prior than Danny Boyle’s anticipated feature Steve Jobs in October.
Gibney’s documentary form is less the formal educational piece; it’s more like a persuasive essay, digging deep for meaning, understanding, and persuasion. However, this brings with it an agenda and viewpoint that’s clear from the onset. Gibney’s goal is to convince you that Jobs is not the person we would believe him to be – or more accurately how we ignored to see what he really was– nor that he deserves the idolatry granted him, and Gibney accomplishes this with depth and a plethora of evidence to back up his claims.
Things start off like you’d expect: millions of heartbroken fans reacting to the death of Jobs around the world. The documentary trudges along with a series of interviews with family and colleagues that slowly reveal Jobs’ machinations, intentions, and the various sides of his personality in the first half. The legendary tale of the early garage days, in which the first Apple Computer was created, makes its obligatory appearance, as does his post-Apple NeXT era and other road signs in Jobs’ life we’re so familiar with.
An early harbinger – and glimpse to what the latter half of the film aims for – of Jobs’ dealings show him at Atari swindling his future Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak with money from a game board that Wozniak worked on. His manipulations of weakness both in tech and in his personal life, from the infamous Blue Box used to make free phone calls across the globe, to his estranged relationship with daughter Lisa and his lapsed child support payments of $500 monthly, despite being worth over $200 million at the time.
The film’s tone changes near the halfway mark, expanding its focus to Apple Corporation, showcasing how mass-culture was manipulated with commodity machines. Personal experiences from disgruntled employees in the workplace reveal his dedication and one-track focus on his work, sacrificing real relationships for machines and his inspired visions.
Gibney shows Jobs as he truly was: a brutal capitalist and questions the visionary “rebels” that he likened himself during the famous iMac campaign. The film even travels to China, where most of Apple’s products are assembled. As expected, these factories are mired by low wages, unsafe working conditions and multiple employee suicides.
Steve Jobs famously claimed that he wanted his machines to bring people together. But was that really his intent, or was he really just a product of corporate greed? The company he created, Apple, is a business after all, one with a story as tumultuous as its founder. How this giant corporation led so many to believe that it was their friend? Do Jobs’ fans truly understand the scope of his legacy and what it actually says about consumer culture?
Gibney asks these questions and attempts to answer them, offering a platform for discussion by letting the information and facts speak for themselves. His role is to help guide our impressions of Jobs, the company he created, was ejected from, and then famously rejoined. Whether you’re a fanboy or a retractor, Gibney offers plenty to think about here. By doing so he’s attempted the impossible by taking a “god” and making him appear human and flawed.
Gibney offers a glimpse of Jobs’ character through his actions: a man with so much money yet didn’t believe in philanthropy, a man OK with illegal backdated stocks, who had no problem in making a journalist’s life miserable for having early access to the iPhone 4 and sharing the information with the world.
Yes, Gibney has an agenda; he seems bitter that a corporate swindler should be admired and idolized the way that he is. But he fesses up to his own contradictions and guilt in owning an iPhone, part of the cultural problem he asserts. On the surface, it may appear that Gibney is simply trying to take down a man who is so deeply admired, but it’s more than just that. His indictment may be a bit harsh at times, but Gibney is allowing us to stimulate our minds and think of the implications of how our culture functions – making this doc not just about its subject but a mirror of our culture and fixations.
More than anything, Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine is really about the larger picture: the power of Corporate America, the power of influence and the continued trench we’ve become mired in when we transfix in our gadgets. These are things the socialist world warned about, the triumph of a Goliath over the sedentary and complacent Davids with their earphones – sorry, EarBuds – plugged into iPhones lost in screens of vast distraction. There’s nothing new here, to be honest, but Gibney presents an enticing and harrowing look at a man many consider to be the Charles Foster Kane of the modern era.