Despite passing away in 2011 there still remains a vibrant fascination with the visionary, celebrated but divisive cultural figure that was Apple CEO Steve Jobs. Spanning biographies, documentary and fictional retellings of his life and career, from the unfortunate Ashton Kutcher turkey Jobs (2013) and the upcoming Aaron Sorkin scripted Steve Jobs (2015), Jobs continues to fascinate and confound filmmakers longing to peel back the surface and eke out the sources of his brilliance.
The latest is Alex Gibney’s Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine (2015), who takes it upon himself to put under the microscope a variety of figures and organisations as diverse as Lance Armstrong and the Church of Scientology. Of course, granted the passing of Jobs, Gibney sets about unlocking the enigmatic character through an extensive and impressively accrued range of archive footage and interviews with friends and co-workers, even if he does tend to rely on them to guide the film’s focus.
Linked together by Gibney’s dry narration, the documentary’s initial modus operandi is to explore the reason why hundreds if not thousands of individuals cried and installed vigils at Apple stores across the world upon his death when, bewilderingly, he was a largely selfish and tactless person. From cheating Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak (absent) out of thousands of dollars at the start of their careers in the 1970s to creating an intensified – almost harsh and alienating – work environment for his long-suffering colleagues, all the while suing the mother of his first child, Chrisann Brennan, to avoid child-support payments, Jobs was a man whose sole mission was achieve ultimate enlightenment through perfectionism. Each of these unlikeable but true chapters in his personal and private life are given their own space in the timeline of the documentary, yet they are oddly counterbalanced with a latter-stage focus on the man’s unrivalled brilliance, which Gibney has little to comment on.
Unlike the filmmaker’s immense HBO documentary Sinatra: All or Nothing At All (2015) earlier this year, which had an equal and unbiased mixture of Sinatra’s public and personal persona, with The Man in the Machine he tries to have it both ways but comes up shallow, having a lot to say about the darkness but little about the widely-felt light. It’s a contradictory approach that’s frustrating largely because there’s such scope to explore how, as the title suggests, the machines Jobs created have changed the face of technology forever, leaving it to the impressive list of talking heads to actively describe their impact. While it’s eye-opening to audience members less privy to Jobs’ dark side, the documentary ultimately fails to pack as much of a punch as Gibney’s impressive other work, both offering and saying little about a man described as doing “everything he ever wanted, and all on his own terms”.
Ed Frost | @Frost_E