Nearly four years after Steve Jobs’ death, his legacy continues to haunt us. Every myth faces a reckoning at some point, and this fall, Jobs’ moment has arrived. Alex Gibney’s incisive documentary “Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine,” opening this week, starts with the messianic depictions of its subject following his 2011 death, then digs into his ruthless business tactics and a brash desire to change modern civilization. The scariest takeaway is that he seems to have gotten away with it.
Setting the stage for Danny Boyle’s portrait of a crazed Jobs in the Michael Fassbender vehicle “Steve Jobs” opening this fall, Gibney’s documentary sifts through a number of Jobs’ moral transgressions, from the backdating of stock options to offshore Irish accounts and the collusion with other big companies with dubious hiring practices. Above all else, however, “The Man in the Machine” explores the way Jobs reversed uncertainties surrounding technological communication by imbuing his products with an intimate allure. Starting with the infamous 1984 advertisement that positioned the Macintosh as an alternative to an Orwellian future, Jobs harnessed a mounting fear of machines, and transformed it into the illusion of hope.
Gibney also suggests that Jobs bought into his own delusions. He named the first Macintosh model “Lisa” after his daughter, illustrating the extent to which his professional aspirations and personal life had merged. As more than one figure in Gibney’s documentary asserts, Jobs wanted to infect the world with this creepy perception. Apple’s products, they explain, aren’t just a part of you — they are you.
It’s a strikingly contemporary idea now that everyone carries their own miniature autobiographies in their pockets, where digital timelines detail the nuances of daily experience. But it’s easy to forget that for years, that very possibility provided the foundation for collective fears. William Gibson’s influential cyberpunk novel “Neuromancer,” released the same year as the first Macintosh, focused on the exploits of a wily hacker in a murky future. The ensuing decade found the fears of an interconnected, computer-dominated society bleeding into the movies: “Hackers,” “The Net” and “The Matrix” showcased an online universe that threatened to destroy the notion of a stable society.
However, the movie that best anticipated the next phase of personalized media didn’t receive nearly as much attention. German director Wim Wenders’ 1991 sci-fi drama “Until the End of the World,” released in a neutered three-hour cut, imagined a future just a few years off in which computers rendered both privacy and individual skills irrelevant. In the movie, a proto-search tool — amusingly represented by the movements of an animated bear — has the power track down anyone; GPS systems drive people around; video conferencing and handheld devices supplant analog communications.
Newly restored by Criterion, which plans to tour around with Wenders’ five-hour cut as part of a larger retrospective launched this month in New York, the movie speaks to modern times in a fresh light. More than just imagining a world to come, “Until the End of the World” now portrays an embellished version of the cluttered media landscape that surrounds us. Picking up on as much, Gibney includes a clip from Wenders’ movie in his documentary. In essence, Gibney argues, Jobs put a smiley face on dystopian possibilities.
Just as Jobs’ true identity comes into clearer focus, the culture is waking up. Gibney’s documentary and the upcoming Boyle project only touch on the emerging awareness of the dangers at hand. The revelations provided by the Edward Snowden leak (a story that is bound for its own big screen version, thanks to this December’s “Snowden”), not to mention the debilitating hacks of Sony Pictures and Ashley Madison, prove that everyone has become vulnerable, inadvertently exposing their inner lives.
Stories are following suit. While Mike Judge’s “Silicon Valley” skewers the hubris of technological innovation on HBO — everyone wants to capture Jobs’ ability to turn digital tools into exciting new friends — on the USA Network, “Mr. Robot” features a drug-addled hacker who casually reads the private emails of everyone he encounters.
Many recent narratives emphasize the fragility of identity in an age where devices homogenize behavior. Even Jean-Luc Godard jumped into the fray with last year’s “Goodbye to Language,” which included the memorable shot of various hands exchanging smartphones and blurring into sameness. In an interview around the time of the film’s premiere, Godard suggested that the text message acronym “SMS” stood for “save my soul.”
It might not be too late to address that plea; new paradigms come along every decade or so with renewed possibilities of a better tomorrow. For now, however, the Jobs effect requires more examination. Further exploration of his flaws await in Boyle’s “Steve Jobs.” With “The Man in the Machine,” however, Gibney closes with a much eerier image than the man himself — the dark void of the iPhone screen, and the hints of things it knows that we don’t yet realize.