Steve Jobs: The Man In The Machine Review

One of the first scenes in Steve Jobs: The Man In The Machine, right after footage of Apple fans very visibly upset by the death of Steve Jobs in 2011, is of a young boy. He's saying, of Jobs: "He made the iPad, he made the iPhone, he made everything!" He's talking as if about some iGod. He's very young, and someone's obviously been having words in his ear, but what about people who are definitely old enough to know better? Documentary maker Alex Gibney sets out to answer the questions that just about every film or book about Steve Jobs asks, explicitly or implicitly - to what extent is his spirit tangled up with the image of Apple? Why did so many people act like the end of days had arrived when he died?

Alex Gibney doesn't muck around. He's a prolific documentary film maker from New York, with a helpful streak of anti-authoritarianism in his questing nature, perhaps inherited from his journalist father, Frank Gibney. He sets up cameras and interviews where any half-careful angel would fear to tread, including in 2012's "Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God", "We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks" (2013) and in 2015's "Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief". His investigation into famously touchy Church of Scientology alone marks him out as being hardcore.

Steve Jobs: The Man In The Machine is another fairly linear, clear-headed investigation, Gibney keen to get to the heart of things in his own way. He is both director and narrator. The film opens with a young Steve Jobs just before he is about to go on television. He's cocky, but nervous: when he sees himself in a camera he's like a little boy posing around in a mirror. Gibney traces the story from when Jobs really was a boy, getting to grips with early computers in Palo Alto and joining forces with one Steve Wozniak. The pair of them used to fiddle around with "blue boxes", electronic devices which, when cleverly but illegally employed, gave the user free phone calls.

Whereas dear, cuddly old Woz freely admits he's a nerd, and there's plenty of shots of him in the documentary either slaving over circuitry or waving his hands around in excitement, it's well known in the pop culture world that Jobs was a much trickier, slinkier character. A real product of time and place, he whizzed around on motorbikes as a young Californian, loved Bob Dylan and got into Zen Buddhism. There's a major clue to the magic of Apple products early on, when we learn that Jobs said of the mystery that surrounds us - "it's the same thing that causes people to want to be poets instead of bankers...and I think that that same spirit can be put into products."

The Man In The Machine is no product of idle speculation: Gibney gets up close and personal with the friends, colleagues, lovers and journalists who knew Jobs in some way, and all of them have a lot to say. Regis McKenna, who had a big hand in marketing and launching at the nascent Apple, turns up early on, noting that the dynamic young Jobs gave people "a feeling of forward movement". Sherry Turkle, MIT professor and human-technology interaction expert, gets right on it when she says that an Apple product wasn't "just for you, it was you", recognising that clever products, a bit of fairy dust and good marketing is a hot combination. Steve Jobs turns up archivally as he does a lot in The Man In The Machine, giving himself away in a few words and body language as he so often did, saying that the latest Apple computer he was trumpeting about was "a 21st century bicycle". It's not as sterile as it might sound: Alex Gibney doesn't shy away from emotion, and there's enough of it. Bob Belleville, hardware designer, cries when he recounts his memories. Apple was pitched as a counter-cultural company and had something of a hippy-dippy credo about it, but in practice working there was hard: Belleville forfeited his family life because of the sheer intensity of the lifestyle.

The combination of tech geek, hippy and go-getter was pretty compelling, and anyone who was a combination of these, and can be played as a lookalike by Ashton Kutcher (in Joshua Michael Stern's 2013 biopic "Jobs") is probably going to end up making trouble in some way. It becomes clear that Steve Jobs was sexy in a way that Bill Gates is never going to be, and kept that personal charisma until later years, when he looked like a surprisingly alluring mixture of Kutcher and Alan Yentob. Jobs' former spiritual teacher shows up in the film and explains his pupil's unconventional approach to Zen - trust him to get with the dynamic bits of Buddhism and none of the compassion, the documentary seems to say. And it's fair enough: Chrisann Brennan, old sweetheart and mother of his daughter Lisa, reveals that things turned sour in all their relationships pretty quickly, with Jobs just out to get Apple truly up and running. (He reconciled with Lisa later on. Lisa Brennan-Jobs' opinions would be documentary gold, but seemingly she doesn't really do this type of thing). There's a part in the film when Gibney asks Sherry Turkle if she knows the 1990 Wim Wenders film "Until The End of the World", in which there is ruinous addiction to the screens of hand-held devices. Perhaps this is a little unfair, or, at least, it's a question which could be aimed at many other techies.

Little time is given to exploring Steve Jobs' relationship and rivalry with Microsoft - what's Microsoft? - but there is the continuing feeling throughout that having something to rail against helped to keep him super-sharp. There's a shot of a young Jobs giving a one-fingered salute under an IBM sign which sticks in the mind, and when there's the famous fall-out with John Sculley, Jobs huffs away to start another company, before the well-known return. Gibney's tone overall is critical but fair, often letting Jobs himself dig his own hole - see him getting defensive and grouchy in the previously unseen deposition he gave in 2008 concerning Apple's backdating of options (see any archival footage where Jobs talks for more than ten minutes). Business journalist Joe Nocera, who worked for Esquire magazine when he trailed Jobs for a week during the floppy-haired years, just comes right out and says that Jobs would turn people in meetings who disagreed with him "into mincemeat". Alex Gibney's sonorous voice asks questions and introduces evidence, and he doesn't shy away from the more difficult parts, like the question of hard done-by workers in China, or the debacle which went on when an Apple intern accidentally left a prototype iPhone on a chair in a bar.

All this might sound a little serious, but there are nice flashes of humour, such as in the inclusion of a bit of film from a 1997 speech - during a bit in which our hero talks about the personal value of Apple, the camera reveals that he is wearing a dad-in-summer uniform of shorts and a jumper. It still leaves us with the huge problem that most parts of The Man In The Machine poses - why all the fuss and fan-worship over a guy who was more than capable of being horrible? The problem is big: there is even disagreement over how heartfelt Steve Jobs was in his hippyish "changing the world for the better" philosophy between those who were close to him: Jon Rubinstein, Apple Head of Hardware for almost ten years, reckons it was real enough: but Andy Grignon, senior manager of the iPhone, pops the balloon and says that Apple was a money-making company, just like any other.

How much of a selfish git do you need to be to be successful and revered like this? Gibney asks. You don't, but in a lot of ways, it probably helps. Steve Jobs gave himself the keys to the whole world of technology, and granted himself the freedom of pretty much the whole world. He had the kind of charm which, if you're vulnerable to it, bites you, and doesn't let you go. Any clued-up person who is a fan of his knows there's absolutely no defending some of his behaviour. Sherry Turkle says that his products were beloved, but he wasn't: but there is something which doesn't ring true about this. His appeal was and is similar to that of the cool, mean, popular guy at school - unlike at school, though, the more geeky lot can align themselves with his devil-may-care attitude and massive success, without having their heads flushed down the toilet: there probably isn't an app for that yet. Alex Gibney leaves us with the same question that he started with: it's all a bit of a mystery, and we should look to ourselves and our own vulnerability to famous faces to discover the heart of their appeal. The Man In The Machine half-inspired me to get a tattoo of Steve Jobs, preferably looking out at the world in that pose, but I think I'll just save up for an iPhone, and remain a fan of a man and a company without being able to properly explain why.

Overall

Alex Gibney's "Steve Jobs: The Man In The Machine" is a critical but fair investigation into the enduring popularity of the core of Apple.

8

out of 10

Last updated: 06/08/2018 15:28:09

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