Described as “a renegade, but legit,” “a study in contrasts,” “a monk among priests,” “maniacal” and “a rebel,” Steve Jobs is sketched in contradictory terms by prolific documentarian Alex Gibney (“Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room,” “We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks,” “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief,” “Finding Fela”) in “Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine.” This bracing film (which hits CNN January 3 following Magnolia’s Oscar-qualifying theatrical release) at first seduces you with the charms of the man, and then guts you with what a tricky riddle he was, an at-times sociopathic mogul who flew close to the Sun, touched it and never quite fell as he should have.
Jobs, upon whose shoulders the entire Apple empire grew and rested, inspired a nation’s worth of outpouring and grief when he died in 2011 of complications of pancreatic cancer. While “The Man in the Machine” does admire the man’s genius, the film does not shy away from peeling back the layers. Careful editing by Michael J. Palmer unspools Jobs’ rather public timeline — his partnership with later-disgraced Steve Wozniak, landing a job at Atari, pioneering the personal computer, the Lisa, the Macintosh, all the way up to the iMac (remember that one?), the PowerBook, the iPod, the MacBook, the iPhone, iPad and, finally, iCloud — and then shows us the darker layers beneath these proud benchmarks.
An anecdote about the real reason why the 1983 Apple Lisa, one of the earliest personal computers, was named after Jobs’ first daughter is especially arresting. He met Chrisann Brennan at their Cupertino high school in 1972, sparking an on-off, disastrous courtship (never yielding a marriage) that revealed Jobs’ sick obsessiveness about his work. Brennan speaks candidly with Gibney about Jobs’ stunted ability to connect with other people, and that he was work-driven enough to eventually attempt to absolve himself of paternity. That didn’t pan out. Jobs and his daughter Lisa stayed in touch, but never close, until his death. Though Lisa does not appear in this film, she movingly reads a letter that addresses his curious kind of empathy: as quick to flip on and off as a light switch.
Gibney later digs, less compellingly and longwindedly, into the legal and stock market scandals that followed Jobs, from back-trading among his highest paid executives to strong-arming reporters into handing over potentially unflattering material. But it’s fascinating to see how Jobs was like Teflon: nothing stuck. The grueling working practices of Foxconn, one of Apple’s far-flung suppliers, have resulted in multiple suicides under dubious circumstances. Jobs never dealt with these, nor did he believe in philanthropy, or shelling out money to causes as did rival Bill Gates. Why? To answer that, Jobs doggedly clung to his core values: “Think different.” Okay then.
The Gibney-est trick in this book is the director’s final sleight-of-hand, in which he turns the reflective iPhone screen upon us to ask why we are so crazy-committed to this brand and its little products in our pockets or the palms of our hands. Gibney himself carries an iPhone, of course, and can’t solve this question. It’s a mystery as beguiling as the Jobs myth, and the film is no love letter. It’s a quite stunning, at turns surprising, eulogy — and a big fat question mark. You’re left feeling troubled by this man in the machine.