New Steve Jobs documentary shows how ruthless the Apple co-founder could be
Steve Jobs is still casting a shadow, four years after his death on Oct. 5, 2011. Upcoming is Aaron Sorkin’s biopic, Steve Jobs, featuring Michael Fassbinder as a prototypical, Sorkin-ian, magnificent-bastard type. Cooler and more urgent is this week’s stirring documentary, Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine. Alex Gibney (of the Scientology exposé Going Clear) celebrates the Apple co-founder’s accomplishments, while demagnetizing Jobs’ cult of personality. In voiceover, Gibney confesses his own love for Apple products and Pixar’s Wall-E. He sets up the dichotomy and then proves it true: the lovable machines versus the “ruthless, deceitful and cruel” man who sired them.
The thought-provoking interviews flow down a stream of music from one of Jobs’ favorites, Bob Dylan. Chrisann Brennan, the mother of Jobs’ child, describes his callousness here as she did in her memoir. In her book, she wrote, “Steve’s lack of fair play seems shameless to me.” If Jobs dealt harshly with the paternity of his daughter, Lisa, he had the excuse of being an adopted child … in the same sense that a parricidal killer has the excuse of being an orphan.
There were others who loved the man. Bob Belleville, one weeping former Apple exec, quotes the eulogy he wrote, recalling that “Santa Claus” was of the faces of Steve. Many still believe in that Santa, remembering the advent of the iPod, the iMac, the iPad. Gibney’s work will be blasphemy to the kind of people who put “#iSad” on their Facebook pages on that October day four years ago.
Perhaps little crimes indicate indifference to bigger ones. Jobs was an able-bodied jerk who took handicapped parking spaces. But Gibney checks off a bigger roster, including Apple’s tax sheltering of $137 billion overseas. After Jobs returned to the company he founded as a temporary CEO, he unplugged its charitable work. There were the matters of the suicide-wracked Foxconn factory; the downstreaming of pollution and unsafe working conditions; the gaming of stock options; Jobs’ behind-the-scenes maneuver to fix salaries among several Silicon Valley giants, in an effort to keep the Valley one big company town.
Retold here is the comic affair of the iPhone 4 prototype—forgotten in a bar by a tipsy Apple employee. The tale turned scary when Gizmodo reporter Jason Chen, who received the phone, had his apartment door busted by R.E.A.C.T., a consortium of police aimed by a “steering committee” of two dozen high-tech companies, including Apple. Jobs demonstrated the truth of the axiom that at 50, you get the face you deserve. In his dying days, he resembled The Simpsons plutocrat Mr. Burns. Burns himself might have gone on camera as Jobs did, to suggest that, on the bright side, the Chinese suicide rate is still smaller than what we’ve got in the U.S.
In an animated sequence, we learn about Jobs’ intense spiritual side, and his youthful desire to be a Zen monk, as Jobs’ mentor Kobun Chino Otugawa describes having a midnight drink with Jobs at the Tea Cup bar in Los Altos.
There was genuine vision in the way Jobs thought of the computer as a tool for personal growth, not a simple calculator for bean-counting. Jobs took the terror out of the personal computer. He was right. There was so much to gain. The fearmongers were right, too: there was a good reason to be worried about lack of privacy and the erosion of personality. Jobs’ mystique was always a bit sinister—love and fear go hand in hand in the marketing game. One tidbit we see here: a vintage magazine advertisement showing an Apple computer that sold for $666.66—sold, yet, with a logo that is the symbol of temptation and the Fall of Man.
The only way to fully appreciate these magic little machines is to understand that they’re the result of ceaseless health-ruining, family-fracturing labor by people whose names we will never know. Belleville describes Jobs’ career as “a life well and fully lived,” yet Jobs’ struggle never ended. His designs became obsolete, like the commodities they are. Considering them all is like considering Jobs’ life: you don’t know whether to marvel over the achievement or mourn over all the waste.
STEVE JOBS: THE MAN IN THE MACHINE Directed by Alex Gibney. Unrated, 127 mins.
STEVE JABS After demystifying Scientology in ‘Going Clear,’ director Alex Gibney has set his sights on the celebrated co-founder of Apple in ‘Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine.’