Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Review: "Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine"

“Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine” is more explanatory than revelatory. If you’ve paid any sizeable degree of attention to the life and career of the late co-founder of Apple, Inc., there probably will be little in the new documentary by Alex Gibney you didn’t already know.

Gibney, an Oscar winner (“Taxi to the Dark Side”) and a doc genre titan, is of the new wave of documentarians who openly weave their own thoughts and opinions into a journalistic exploration of a subject. What he does here is start with a question in his own head – Why was Jobs’ 2011 death so personally affecting to so many people? – and then sets out to try to answer it.

It’s an interesting premise, and one I’ve often thought about myself. I remember the wash of social media posts and ad-hoc shrines when Jobs succumbed to pancreatic cancer at age 56, and was puzzled by them. I asked people why they were weeping for a man who 1) they had never met 2) was pretty universally regarded as unpleasant by anybody who interacted with him, and 3) personally invented very little, but readily vacuumed up the credit and billions in financial windfall on behalf of those who did.

I never really got any answers that satisfied, and I don’t think Gibney does, either. But the journey is still worthwhile, even if the desired destination remains unattainable.

The film dances around Jobs’ biography, in roughly chronological order but skipping over large chunks of years that Gibney didn’t find pertinent to his angle. (His more than a decade in the wilderness after being booted as Apple CEO and then returning triumphantly for the turning of the millennium becomes carpet sweepings.) There’s a lot of archival interviews with Jobs himself, plus fresh ones with people who knew or worked for him.

Certainly Gibney takes care to check off some of the uglier aspects of Jobs’ personal life – initially refusing to acknowledge paternity of his daughter, his estrangement from Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak – but it doesn’t come across as a hit piece. There are also plenty of salutations from people who worked with or for Jobs, who unerringly describe his genius at synthesizing the ideas of others into a new paradigm.

It’s interesting that most of Jobs’ interpersonal relationships all seemed to be transitory. He would have people that he essentially spent every minute of time with for years on end. Did you talk to him much in his last 10 or 20 years, Gibney will ask. No, I haven’t seen him at all, they will reply. Jobs could be very close to people, until he didn’t want to be anymore.

What emerges is a portrait of a man filled with a sense of grand purpose but also an abundant reservoir of venality. He really meant it when he would give one of his apocryphal presentations about Apple changing the world. What’s apparent is that Jobs ignored the question of whether for good or ill.

Gibney recounts the big stuff: the launch of the Macintosh, iPod and iPhone; the dire circumstances of Chinese factory workers who build these $500 toys for a buck a day; the sharp-elbowed, protectionist ways Jobs and other Silicon Valley giants did business, etc.

He also has time for a few less-explored aspects of Jobs, such as fascination with Eastern mysticism, and other biographical bits ‘n’ pieces.

My favorite anecdote in the film is his learning that new cars in California have a six-month grace period to affix a license plate, thus Jobs made an arrangement to keep leasing identical silver Mercedes sedans so he could drive around with a blank tag. Ostensibly it was for security purposes so he couldn’t be identified, but of course it became his calling card. Jobs would brazenly park his untagged Mercedes in handicapped spaces around the Apple campus.

Clearly, this is a man who felt the rules didn't apply to him -- and wanted everyone to know it.

The most interesting part of the film is near the end, when Gibney philosophizes about how the technological shift that Jobs helped foment has left us “alone together,” staring at our little digital windows into another universe while ignoring the actual people around us. We’re all connected by our disconnectedness, substituting shiny, elegant boxes for real actual human interaction. People now freely spout hateful stuff on comment boards they know would get them punched in the nose if spoken aloud.

This has left us a world where we’re all a little bit smarter, but also a little bit meaner. Perhaps that is Steve Jobs’ truest reflection, and legacy.

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