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

Posted:
in General Discussion edited September 2015
Documentarian Alex Gibney's take on the life and times of Apple cofounder Steve Jobs poses provocative questions, but is too light on new information, too one-sided and at times too rudderless to answer them itself.




Even at two hours long, Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine feels rushed. As former Mac engineering chief Bob Belleville put it in an emotional interview (one of the film's standout scenes), Jobs jammed centuries of experience into his 56 years on earth. A single movie can't come close to unpacking it all.

Gibney spends the first hour setting the stage, focusing on Jobs' early days at Apple before stepping back to offer perspective on a whirlwind life punctuated by trips to far off lands in search of meaning, spiritual enlightenment and self fulfillment. We get a distinct sense that Jobs never quite felt at peace, afflicted by an inner turmoil and driven by an inexplicable passion to create for what he claimed was a greater good. The film suggests instead that Jobs was perhaps steered by hubris, or something else entirely.

The second half devolves somewhat into a negative account of nearly every misstep Jobs made after finding success. Tough questions are asked, like whether Jobs was aware of -- or facilitated -- Apple's stock backdating scandal or why he initially disavowed paternal responsibility for his first daughter Lisa.

As an audience we are asked to draw our own conclusions about the "real" Steve Jobs, but Gibney's film comes up short on providing sufficient fodder. Interviewees include a number of past Apple employees, journalists and others who at one point had Jobs in their life, including Lisa's mother Chrisann Brennan, though none come from Jobs' family.




Interspersed throughout the two hours are clips from Jobs' videotaped deposition from a U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission case, taped in 2008. The video initially serves as a slick segue into archival footage showing behind-the-scenes business operations at Apple, but later in the film becomes a kind of doctored litmus test for proving Gibney's assertions true.

Appearing in his usual black turtleneck and jeans, Jobs is wan and clearly suffering both physically and mentally. He constantly squirms in his chair, his face sometimes twisted in pain. The footage is uncomfortable to watch for those who can put it into context. In the film, however, the circumstances are never introduced formally and are therefore framed as potentially damning statements coming from Jobs' own mouth.

Positioning such an incendiary piece of evidence at a documentary's core without context is prohibitive. Questions arise as to whether Jobs' condition at the time impaired his ability to correctly recall facts, or made him more candid and open. The video alone leaves much up to interpretation, but Gibney wields it as proof of his own assertions. Indeed, the latter third of the film jumps from topic to topic, many of which are unflattering to Jobs and Apple's modern corporate machine. Machine rehashes well-trod areas of intrigue, from tax avoidance (snippets of Apple CEO Tim Cook's Senate hearing are shown) to workers' rights and Foxconn suicides.

Highlighting Gibney's style of guided storytelling is a segment on the Gizmodo incident. In 2010, tech blog Gizmodo paid for a prototype iPhone 4 left behind at a bar by an employee, a major scoop as the handset was months away from release. Gizmodo photographed, inspected and dissected the smartphone before returning it to Apple. After Apple retrieved its property, Gizmodo editor Jason Chen had his house raided by a specialized California law enforcement task force called the Regional Enforcement Allied Computer Team (REACT). On a side note, the "R" in REACT used to stand for "Rapid," but has since changed to a less aggressive "Regional."

Gibney interviewed those involved, at least on Gizmodo's side, including Gawker Media founder Nick Denton. Offering counterpoint is footage of Jobs discussing the incident during an interview with Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg, then journalists with The Wall Street Journal.

The film alludes to Apple's complicit involvement in the raid, noting the company is one of a number of corporations backing the REACT task force. A question is posed asking whether REACT is simply a group of hired thugs, the muscle for powerful Silicon Valley companies. Gibney presents no answers beyond what is basically an indictment against Jobs from the Gizmodo crew.





Following the truncated chronicling of Jobs' life, Gibney circles back to posit his original question: why did the world mourn Jobs' passing?

It's become en vogue to paint Jobs as a temperamental genius who suffered no fool, and while Machine does a good job of summing up Jobs' morally suspect decisions, it fails to present noteworthy counterpoints, making it feel like a slam. But I don't think this was Gibney's intention. The film, while leaning toward the negative, leaves just enough room to let audience members solidify a preexisting opinion on Jobs, if they have one.

Gibney's film, then, serves to amplify our own preconceived notions; watching it reveals our own bias toward the "man in the machine," and there seems to be more than enough to go around. Belleville, in the clip above, best summarizes Jobs' polarizing effect. Whether cruel or kind, just or unjust, and regardless of his intentions, Jobs left those around him deeply changed.

Steve Jobs: Man in the Machine is out at select theaters now and can be purchased or streamed from iTunes, Amazon and other online retailers.

Editor's note: A previous version of this review incorrectly noted Jobs' 2008 SEC deposition as having taken place in 2011. The story has been updated with the correct information.

Comments

  • Reply 1 of 16
    Good review, thanks. Come back to the podcast this week, Mikey.
  • Reply 2 of 16
    boredumbboredumb Posts: 1,405member

    Guess I'm going to have to see it...for better or for worse.

  • Reply 3 of 16

    Meh. The documentary was fine though I don't think it presents us with any new questions or answers.

     

    The first hour is stuffed with lots of archival footage and photos which I thought was the most interesting.

  • Reply 4 of 16
    [QUOTE]Interspersed throughout the two hours are clips from Jobs' videotaped deposition from the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission's iPod iTunes antitrust case, taped just months before his death in 2011. The video initially serves as a slick segue into archival footage showing behind-the-scenes business operations at Apple, but later in the film becomes a kind of doctored litmus test for proving Gibney's assertions true.

    Appearing in his usual black turtleneck and jeans, Jobs is wan and clearly suffering both physically and mentally. He constantly squirms in his chair, his face sometimes twisted in pain. The footage is uncomfortable to watch for those who can put it into context. In the film, however, the circumstances are never introduced formally and are therefore framed as potentially damning statements coming from Jobs' own mouth.[/QUOTE]Alex Gibney. May his name live in infamy. Nothing attached to it will see a dollar from me in any way, shape or form.
  • Reply 5 of 16
    flaneurflaneur Posts: 4,453member
    Nice review, but I have to counter the last paragraphs. Gibney is most definitely grinding out a hit piece against Jobs and Apple.

    Just look at his main interview subjects: Yukari Iwatani Kane ([I]Haunted Empire[/I]), and three [I]Fortune[/I] veterans, Joe Nocera, Peter Elkind, and a former managing editor whose name I didn't catch who thought Jobs should have opened his doors completely for the self-important rag. Jobs seems to have hated [I]Fortune[/I], having felt betrayed by their inability to understand what he was doing.

    Of course they didn't understand. They are the very high priests of New York/Wall Street straight culture, condescending when they aren't being supercilious.

    This is exactly where Gibney is coming from. In the following interview, he reveals how distant he is from Jobsian gnosticism. About halfway through he talks about being a PC guy forced to swich to Mac. Notice what he objects to—being seduced by Jobs:

    http://www.salon.com/2015/09/04/alex_gibney_on_steve_jobs_he_was_ruthless_when_it_came_to_a_beveled_edge_for_the_iphone_but_paying_workers_more_in_china_no_way/
  • Reply 6 of 16
    sirdirsirdir Posts: 112member
    Saw it yesterday. Good review I'd say. I know other people like Jobs, so I'm pretty sure he had both sides.
  • Reply 7 of 16
    nagrommenagromme Posts: 2,834member
    Kane was interviewed? Big flashing red warning lights....
  • Reply 8 of 16
    flaneurflaneur Posts: 4,453member
    nagromme wrote: »
    Kane was interviewed? Big flashing red warning lights....

    Yep, she gets a fair amount of camera time, and it's a lesson in how not to photograph someone. That aside, the movie supports her thesis in a way. Apple is cursed, embodies an "original sin" inherited from Steve Jobs.

    It's pathological. Back to Gruber's question. What is it about Apple that makes people insane?
  • Reply 9 of 16

    This was rubbish.

     

    You could spend your time at a Mike Daisey show with similar results.

     

    If you desperately need to throw away two plus hours of your life watching it (like I regret doing) then don't pay for it. Don't support shoddy 'journalism'.

  • Reply 10 of 16
    It was ok... Nothing to write home about.
    A few aggressive remarks here and there... But mostly footage i had seen in little clips here and there .
  • Reply 11 of 16

    Those who can, do. Those who can't, judge the ones who can.

  • Reply 12 of 16

    I had this scheduled for tonite, but there's an Apple Event to stream first! I'll probably watch this tomorrow. 

     

    In all probability, Danny Boyle's Steve Jobs movie may be a breath of fresh (fictional) air after watching this.

  • Reply 13 of 16
    I will watch it. I always admired Apple in general and Jobs in particular for giving me the tools to do some really cool things without the technology getting in the way of what I am trying to do. Whether Jobs was a jerk or a God really doesn't mean much to me. It is the tools that he inspired Apple to create that makes me tip my hat to him. And his Stanford address will always stand as testament to what his lifework inspires people to do, to make a difference.
  • Reply 14 of 16
    Good review until the last couple of paragraphs, when Campbell simply stops making sense. He correctly points out that while the film "does a good job of summing up Jobs' morally suspect decisions, it fails to present noteworthy counterpoints, making it feel like a slam." But then comes the leap into irrationality: "But I don't think this was Gibney's intention." OH, PLEASE. Gibney is one of our most prolific and high-profile documentarians. You think he stacked the deck like that without intention?!

    Much worse, though, was Gibney's one-sided slam of Apple the company, which included the bald-faced lie that Steve stopped all philanthropic giving at Apple. Really? So the $70 million that Apple has donated to date through Project RED, that doesn't count? Argue, if you want, that Apple should be doing more, but don't claim it does nothing when that's simply not true.

    Similarly, he paints Apple as responsible for all of Foxconn's employee abuses--you'd be forgiven for thinking it was a China subsidiary of Apple. In fact, Foxconn manufacturers products for most of the biggest names in tech, and no company has been more visible than Apple in trying to address the problems there. Blame Apple, if you will, for turning a blind eye for too long, but when you make it seem as if they've done nothing to correct that, then you just have an ax to grind.

    Then there is Apple's offshoring of profits in Ireland, and again, the company is painted as some lone bad guy engaged in morally questionnable activities. Hey, I think the offshoring of profits is reprehensible, but the problem lies with our tax code, not with Apple. They are doing what MANY other publicly traded companies are doing, which is perfectly legal and in the best interests of their shareholders.

    Just to be clear--I think it's absolutely fair for Gibney to explore the "darker sides" of both Jobs and Apple. But to do so largely without counterpoint, as he had done in this doc, reveals a filmmaker far more interested in grinding axes than revealing truths.
  • Reply 15 of 16
    flaneurflaneur Posts: 4,453member
    ^^^ All true. Good review.

    Gibney violates elementary principles of journalism. Worse, he doesn't have the breadth of intellect to understand his subject. He doesn't "get" Steve Jobs, the work he did, and what Apple is doing.

    This isn't the place, but he should get his wig straightened somehow or other.
  • Reply 16 of 16

    Where can one find the full deposition video from 2008? 

     

    To me, this was the most interesting part of the film, but I cannot find this video ANYWHERE.  (only the small clips in the film itself)  

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