- Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine
- Directed by Alex Gibney
- Cinematheque, Runs till Nov. 19
- 129 minutes
- Four stars out of five
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This article was published 10/11/2015 (1439 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
‘Here’s to the crazy ones," says that 1997 "Think Different" ad, over black-and-white images of the 20th-century icons annexed to the Apple cause — Martin Luther King, Jr., Buckminster Fuller, Bob Dylan, Maria Callas, Einstein, Gandhi. "You can glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them."
In this look at Apple founder and tech visionary Steve Jobs, American documentarian Alex Gibney neither glorifies nor vilifies. Approaching his subject in an old-school spirit of journalistic inquiry, Gibney crafts a complex picture of a brilliant, difficult man.
The Academy Award-winning Gibney — whose films include Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room; Taxi to the Dark Side; We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks; and Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief — takes as his starting point Jobs’ death in 2011 and the global outpouring of grief that followed. With footage of Apple believers gathering to lay flowers, light candles and offer prayers, it becomes hard not to view Jobs’ story in religious terms.
Examining the roots of this profound devotion, Gibney starts with the controversial, almost messianic figure of Jobs himself. He ends by posing larger questions about our increasingly enmeshed relationship to technology.
Jobs’ genius resided in his understanding of the future of personal computing. What others saw as a series of practical applications, he envisioned as a deeply intimate connection between user and object. It’s not just that an Apple product "is made for you," suggests one tech expert in the film. "It is you."
Mixing interviews, archival footage and Gibney’s own voice-over narrative, Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine confirms the image of Jobs as a man who radiated energy, intensity and limitless possibility. Of course, accounts of his greatness and breadth are juxtaposed with almost comic instances of petty jerkiness. (Jobs drove in the carpool lane when he was by himself. He parked in handicapped spots.)
Beyond his personal contradictions, Jobs also managed to craft an image of Apple as a countercultural corporation. That wasn’t just the company’s founding myth. (Oh, those long-haired kids in the suburban garage taking on the faceless corporate monolith of IBM.) Jobs continued to present Apple as a scrappy underdog upstart even when it had become the highest-valued corporation in the world.
As Gibney suggests, this meant that buying Apple products wasn’t seen as crass consumerism. Fans saw the company as different somehow, placing faith in Jobs’ professed core values even as evidence mounted of massive tax avoidance, shady backdated stock options and horrific labour practices in China. (The Chinese factory’s solution was to erect safety nets around the housing blocks so that workers could no longer jump to their deaths.)
Unlike his master showman subject, Gibney tends to be solid rather than spectacular. He has, after all, taken on the Church of Scientology, and you need to know how to cross your t’s and dot your i’s before going on the record about that very litigious organization.
There are no new revelations here. Rather Gibney has mustered and presented a lot of material with his usual scrupulousness and cogency. His work could be considered a corrective to Aaron Sorkin’s recent fictionalized account, which had its own kooky brilliance but actually said more about Sorkin than Jobs.
Gibney doesn’t offer a big, final Sorkin-style statement. Instead, he grapples with his own ambivalence about Jobs and his enormous social and technological legacy. He wonders whether Apple has created connecting technologies or isolating technologies. Wary of self-righteousness, the filmmaker admits he has an iPhone in his own pocket, and that he often finds his hand unconsciously straying toward it "like Frodo reaching for the Ring."
Gibney knows it’s not enough to wonder about Apple’s core values. We also need to examine our own.
Studying at the University of Winnipeg and later Toronto’s York University, Alison Gillmor planned to become an art historian. She ended up catching the journalism bug when she started as visual arts reviewer at the Winnipeg Free Press in 1992.
Updated on Wednesday, November 11, 2015 at 11:11 AM CST: Changed video.
November 12, 2015 at 9:30 AM: Changes photo