“Official” biographer Walter Isaacson, whose all-access, occasionally unflattering biography is the basis of a feature film starring Michael Fassbender this fall, is nowhere to be found in Alex Gibney’s documentary, “The Man in the Machine.” Even though CNN produced it and Isaacson used to work for them, he’s a no show.
But match the honored biographer’s work up against America’s greatest documentary filmmaker, and the movie scores in a lot of the most important regards. Gibney, whose Scientology and Enron (“The Smartest Guys in the Room”) and Wikileaks and CIA torture films (“Taxi to the Dark Side”) are compelling, damning indictments, turns his camera not just on Jobs, but on the Cult of Apple. And the mirror shows just how much spin, hype and makeup it takes to hide all of the beloved company and its iconic founder’s blemishes.
Gibney begins by scratching his head over all the North American weeping over Jobs’ death.
“What accounted for the grief?”
After all, he was just a guy who made and sold stuff, right? And he didn’t even make it, took credit for things he badgered others into designing and exploited cheap Chinese laborers to manufacture.
“The Man in the Machine” proceeds to answer that question. Jobs saw himself as a paradigm shifting figure, someone who would change the way we relate to technology. And to millions the world over, he was. Through marketing and advertising and design, he made computers friendly, phones more connective, music more personally accessible.
The film traces the evolution of the man, his early exposure to gadgets and tech, his absorption of the book “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions,” his embrace of Eastern philosophy and pursuit of elegant, human-scaled design.
His contemporaries might gripe about credit hogging, idea-theft and “short-cuts” he took — with employees, patents, taxes and business practices — until the day he died. But Jobs changed the world.
Gibney finds the contradiction in Jobs’ pursuit of zen practices through travels and his mentor. But time and again, he finds a spoiled, cruel predator and technocrat more at home naming a computer “Lisa” than accepting his firstborn child of that name as his own.
He was a man “with the focus of a monk, but none of the empathy.”
And all these people swooning over the “stuff” Job kept selling them (at staggering markups)? They’re the real story, here — more connected to the world, electronically, but quite possibly disconnected from it inter-personally. Like their hero.
“His STUFF was beloved. HE wasn’t beloved.”
Gibney goes further than the decades of “Yeah, he’s a jerk BUT” accounts of Jobs, finding the mania for the work but also the flawed philosophy Jobs espoused but never let himself practice. Was what he was doing making the world a better place, as Jobs’ guru asked of him?
The film burnishes Jobs’ image for an hour, taking him to the iPhone announcement peak and covering familiar ground. It’s the second half where the darkness takes over, the tax dodges, bullying the press, anti-competitive conspiracies that have kept Silicon Valley wages low and altered American immigration policy to suit Big Tech’s needs.
The Gizmodo iPhone “leak” episode, a bit of strong-arming that Jobs carried out even as he knew was dying and what it would do to his legacy, steps front and center. Jobs had a special Silicon Valley police force raid the house of a reporter who came into possession of a prototype phone, brutal harassment that showed his true colors to all.
Gibney uses interviews, fresh and archival, and a court deposition and reporters’ memories of long-exposure to Jobs for his evidence. And it’s damning, from the financial cheating to the lack of philanthropy to the arrogance that let him think he knew better than modern medicine how to treat his cancer.
For all his bluster about Apple and “Think Different,” Jobs had more in common with the 19th century robber barons than with pick-your-sainted-visionary. He was more Edison than Tesla, more Rockefeller than Carnegie.
And if the film of Isaacson’s book doesn’t touch on this, then it’ll feel like a whitewashing.
MPAA Rating: R for some language.
Cast: Steve Jobs, many who worked with him and knew him
Credits: Written and directed by Alex Gibney. A Magnolia/CNN Films release.
Running time: 2:08