Hot on the heels of his riveting Scientology takedown “Going Clear,” the ever-prolific Alex Gibney calls the much farther-reaching cult of Apple into question with “Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine,” a coolly absorbing, deeply unflattering portrait of the late Silicon Valley entrepreneur that expands, not altogether convincingly, into a meditation on our collective over-reliance on our favorite handheld gadgets. Once more synthesizing research and reportage into a cinematic essay that makes up in calm analysis what it lacks in fresh revelations, Gibney duly acknowledges Jobs’ artistry, innovation and technological showmanship while making plain just how “ruthless, deceitful and cruel” the man could be. By turns searching and scorching, and more than willing to speak ill of the dead, the CNN-produced item should play on screens big and small, whetting appetites for Universal’s forthcoming Jobs biopic in the process.
Freeing himself from any obligation to deliver a blow-by-blow summary, Gibney offers a more conceptual and critical assessment of his subject’s legacy than did Walter Isaacson’s biography, which was published less than a month after Jobs’ death in October 2011. That’s the moment where Gibney begins, his voiceover setting a ruminative yet skeptical tone as he considers the astonishing outpouring of grief from millions of Apple consumers worldwide (#iSad was a popular hashtag), the depth of their response underscoring the profoundly personal bond that can develop between a human being and a beautiful lump of metal. And no one understood that attachment better or exploited it more brilliantly than Jobs, who pioneered the once-unthinkable idea that we might one day slip a sleekly designed, ultra-sophisticated piece of engineering into our pockets as casually as we would our car keys.
Gibney employs archival photos and footage to briefly transport us back to a time when computers were the opposite of personal — big, heavy, user-unfriendly contraptions that inspired more fear than love. But the young Jobs, along with his school friend and future Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, soon became determined to shift that paradigm. It was Wozniak who in 1971 designed a digital-circuit blue box, a device capable of fooling the telephone companies and enabling free long-distance calls, and an early showcase for Jobs’ plucky ingenuity and underdog spirit. Another project — in which the two devised a circuit board for the Atari videogame “Breakout,” for which Jobs took home most of the payout — provided an early hint of just how self-serving a visionary he could be.
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Gibney draws heavily on old video interviews with Jobs, showing us both the long-haired, dark-browed wunderkind who delighted in giving IBM the finger and the gaunt, black-turtlenecked techno-prophet we know from so many iPhone and iPad demos. Fluidly assembled by editor Michael J. Palmer (with nifty use of old-school Apple typefaces to identify participants onscreen), “The Man in the Machine” duly rattles off most of the key moments of its subject’s career: the formation and steady rise of Apple; Jobs’ firing in 1985; his founding of NeXT and his funding of Pixar, which was eventually acquired by Disney; and his return to the troubled Apple in 1997, at which point he engineered a stunning turnaround that vaulted the company into the commercial and cultural stratosphere it occupies today. What seems to fascinate Gibney most, however, are not these now-familiar milestones but rather Jobs’ equally well-known character failings, which his accomplishments merely seemed to throw into ever harsher relief.
While Apple unsurprisingly opted not to participate in the documentary (due to the company’s alleged “lack of resources,” Gibney noted witheringly after the SXSW premiere), several of Jobs’ old colleagues and associates willingly go on the record here, including former Macintosh head of engineering Bob Belleville, who gets emotional recounting the stressful work environment that Jobs seemed to delight in creating. On a certain level, “The Man in the Machine” functions as a corrective and a tribute to the many brilliant men and women Jobs surrounded himself with but didn’t necessarily give their due; many here attest to his sharp way with a jab and his monomaniacal need for control, particularly with regard to staff retention. That Jobs was desperate to keep his top-flight employees from fleeing to the competition may account for why he opened Apple up to a scandal over backdated stock options in 2001.
Gibney doesn’t exactly go in for cheap shots here, but you do get the sense that he’s making use of every weapon in his arsenal. His targets are many, ranging from Apple’s use of cheap Chinese labor to produce device components at factories like Foxconn, which has a notoriously high employee suicide rate, to Jobs’ extreme overreaction to a team of Gizmodo reporters who came into possession of a misplaced iPhone prototype and posted a scoop. Considerable screen time is devoted to an older episode in which the young Jobs disputed the paternity of his daughter Lisa (with his high-school girlfriend, Chrisann Brennan) and balked at paying child support — callous and ironic behavior, coming from someone who was always painfully aware of having been given up for adoption. As a still-wounded Brennan understandably concludes: “He didn’t know what real connection was.” That he would later bestow the name of Lisa on a (failed) line of Apple computers merely seemed to underscore the sense that Jobs found it easier to express his love for machines than for other people, including his own family.
At one point, “The Man in the Machine” features a moving excerpt from a magazine piece written by Lisa Brennan-Jobs herself, reflecting on the time she accompanied her perpetually busy father on a business trip to Japan and experienced a brief, heavenly glimpse of what their relationship might have been. Throughout the film, Gibney gives us strikingly contemplative images of one of Jobs’ favorite spiritual retreats, the Japanese Zen Buddhist temple known as Eiheiji; the pristine elegance and hushed solitude of these environs provide a revealing metaphor for Jobs’ exacting standards of beauty.
A few of these lyrical interludes might easily have been trimmed from the film’s engrossing if overlong 127 minutes. Better still, Gibney might have ditched his well-meaning but not exactly earth-shattering conclusion that our love for our iPods and iPads has forced us into an isolated, emotionally constricted existence. As he recently demonstrated in 2013’s “The Armstrong Lie,” another gripping portrait of overweening male celebrity hubris, Gibney isn’t afraid to put his own ambivalence front and center; here, however, his acknowledgment of his own attachment to his iPhone, and what that might say about him as a person, feels sententious and overreaching. (Still, in the spirit of full disclosure: This review was written and posted on a much-cherished MacBook Pro.)