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Review: Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine (2015)

Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine (2015)

Directed by: Alex Gibney

Premise: A documentary about Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, examining his career and his private life.  

What Works: Alex Gibney has emerged as one of the finest documentary filmmakers working at the moment and many of his movies have been biographical in nature, often taking on popular personalities and powerful organizations. Most storytellers consistently return to the same set of issues. In Gibney’s case, films like Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer, We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks, and The Armstrong Lie center upon the relationship between the public and cultural institutions and the divide between a celebrity’s public image and his or her private behavior. Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine finds Gibney back in familiar territory, sorting through the life and work of Apple’s co-founder and the personality cult that emerged among Apple’s most intense fans. Part of what is unique about Steve Jobs is that many of his personal foibles were already well known such as his strained family relationships, his cruel administrative style, and his cutthroat business practices. Jobs was in many respects the hero of an Ayn Rand’s novel come alive and yet he was loved and admired by many, including those who would never pick up a copy of Atlas Shrugged. Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine is most revelatory when it goes beyond Jobs’ personal eccentricities to explore that paradox. This movie is really a critical look at Apple. As the film portrays it, the culture of America and the world were changed by Apple and the culture of the company was virtually indistinguishable from the character of Steve Jobs, both for better and for worse. That’s the most provocative aspect of this movie; Steve Jobs and Apple embody the all-American success story but the public image of this man and his company were as carefully crafted as the design of an iPhone. This film gets beyond the façade and it is an unsettling portrayal of a man who had tremendous drive and vision but who also had a serious disconnect between his self-image and who he actually was. That disconnect is one of the most important and underappreciated aspects of Jobs’ legacy.

What Doesn’t: There is so much to Steve Jobs’ work, legend, and legacy that any film would have trouble grappling with all of it. The goal of The Man in the Machine is to grasp the connection between the man, his work and the consumer. However, this documentary glances over or omits some major elements of Jobs’ and Apple’s story. The film covers the creation of the iMac but some of that model’s predecessors are more important to the narrative of the company and to the history of personal computers. The film also omits the impact of iTunes; along with illicit file sharing technology this service turned the economics of the music industry upside down in ways that were both good and very bad. ITunes omission here is as mystifying as the absence of Steve Jobs’ chief competitor: Bill Gates. The founder of Microsoft gets barely a mention in this movie even though the two men had an interesting relationship, which was dramatized in the 1999 movie Pirates of Silicon Valley. Like a lot of Alex Gibney’s documentaries about famous people, the filmmaker uses a famous biography to illuminate what that person’s work means for the rest of us. In usual Gibney fashion, Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine does not entirely answer its central question. Part of that is Gibney’s style but the movie suffers from two distinct theses: who was Steve Jobs and what did Jobs mean for the rest of us? The film intends for the first question to answer the second but at the end of the film this issue is still unresolved.  

Bottom Line: Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine may not be the definitive work on Jobs but it is a very important document, not in the least because it bucks the hagiographic trend of so many other attempts to summarize his life. The film provides a critical look at Apple but its most provocative questions concern why so many of us idolized Steve Jobs and what his legacy means for the culture.

Episode: #560 (September 20, 2015)