Remember when Steve Jobs abandoned his daughter and refused to pay child support despite being worth millions?
Alex Gibney’s new documentary Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine, which hits cinemas, iTunes, and VOD on Friday September 4th, is at once a study of the late visionary’s unrelenting optimism about the power of computers to change the world and a portrait of a ruthless businessman who trampled others’ lives on the way to his goals.
The latter characterisation is the reason that Apple doesn’t want anything to do with the latest documentary. After a screening of the film at SXSW, Apple exec Eddy Cue, a close friend of Jobs, tweeted his disapproval over what could be seen as a damning portrait of Jobs.
Gibney, for those of you who don’t know, spent time in the public eye this year for his critically lauded documentary expose Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief. He also won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 2007 for Taxi to the Dark Side.
The Man in the Machine opens as an investigation into the cult of Steve Jobs. When Jobs died in 2011, he was publicly mourned with tears and adoring self-flagellation in the tradition of rock stars like Kurt Cobain and John Lennon. Gibney points out that Jobs was not a rock star, but a businessman. How exactly did this happen?
In part, this is the story we’ve heard before. Jobs was the first person to make devices so personal people connected with them emotionally. These weren’t business machines, as in the case of IBM, but life machines. He enlisted singular technical and design talents like Steve Wozniak and Jony Ive to create legendary products like the Macintosh, the iPod, and the iPhone, which were all game-changing consumer electronics.
The Man in the Machine doesn’t hold back on evocative examples of single-mindedness. Macintosh engineer Bob Belleville cries while reading a reflection he wrote shortly after Jobs’ death; this despite acknowledging that he had only seen Jobs a few times since leaving the the Macintosh team in 1985, a job he said cost him deep personal sacrifice.
So far, this all seems to fall into line with the pervasive narrative about Jobs: he was a once-in-generation genius who pushed other people beyond their limits to achieve something great. The reason Apple doesn’t want you to see that film (the company didn’t make any its current employees or executives available for interview) is that Gibney takes every possible opportunity to cut down Jobs.
Beyond the etherial poetics of Jobs’s genius, the movie is basically a hack job. Gibney devotes substantial screen time to hugely immoral actions in Jobs’s life. Remember when Jobs refused to acknowledge his daughter Lisa, and sued to have all paternity claims from his ex-girlfriend Chrisann Brennan legally dismissed? Remember when he threw a couple of former Apple business executives under the bus to conceal his role in illegally acquiring sub-market-price Apple stock? Remember when he built a ruthless manufacturing empire so cuthroat that it drove labourers at the Apple’s Foxconn factories to suicide?
And how could we forget the time Jobs came after Gizmodo for publishing photos and video of a lost iPhone 4 prototype. The film devotes a substantial time to the iPhone 4 saga from back in 2010. It features interviews with old Giz staffers Brian Lam, Jason Chen, Jesus Diaz (who runs video at Gawker now), and Nick Denton. Jobs was pissed off, and we tend to agree with Gibney that he overreacted in sicking Silicon Valley’s tech investigation super friends upon Jason Chen’s house. All charges against Gizmodo were eventually dismissed.
Most people will probably see Gibney’s attempt at a balanced portrayal as a little heavy-handed. In recent years we’ve seen a pair of biopics, and a few books on Jobs, and and though Apple execs like Cue want us to think this film is “mean-spirited,” it’s worth considering why other accounts gloss over the negative aspects of Jobs’s life. We spend so much time talking about Jobs the visionary that anecdotes about his legendary egoism and mercurial personality are often written off as the quirks of a creative soul. If anything, this film does a nice job honing on the darker side of the person who made it all happen.
There’s Steve Jobs the man who made computers usable for normal people, and there’s Steve Jobs the sociopath who could be an asshole to even his family and closest friends. Both accounts matter.