Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine is a documentary for the power-lunch crowd, a work of arduous assemblage that values information over affect and zip over conviction in its ramshackle historicizing of Apple CEO Steve Jobs. For director Alex Gibney, it’s another time-capsule chronicle in the spirt of Finding Fela and Going Clear, each of which sought to illuminate the off-stage or off-camera personas of its respective subject. More like Going Clear, and worse off for it, Gibney’s latest functions as an exposé on monolithic power run amok, as Jobs is depicted as a man with only one speed: “full-on,” as a colleague states in one of the film’s numerous interviews, where Gibney’s voice is heard off screen to provide context for the assertion. His voice is important, because it frequently appears in voiceover and provides the film’s opening question regarding Jobs’s death in 2011: “What accounted for the grief of millions that didn’t know him?” Gibney, alluding to countless YouTube eulogies and melancholic gestures from around the globe, takes Jobs’s reception in death as an immediate point of entry, but quickly abandons crowd sourcing in favor of placid, encyclopedic accounts of Jobs’s ascendancy from a technician at Atari to billionaire icon.
The stumble at the start relegates Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine to a state of passive characterization where the promise of alternative filmmaking methods, such as unique instances of Jobs’s import in more unusual places, never takes shape. As in prior films, Gibney rests his haunches on archival footage; here, it’s interviews with Jobs, his coworkers, and news pieces detailing various blips on Jobs’s by now well-trodden biography. Jobs liked Bob Dylan, we’re told, so Gibney samples “Mr. Tambourine Man” during the opening and even coaxes one interviewee into saying that Jobs was “both joker and thief,” referring to the first line from “All Along the Watchtower.” Gibney gets many folks to make similarly boisterous claims; one says Jobs fashioned himself “a paradigm shifter,” while another cheekily refers to him as “a counterculture businessman,” lines that Gibney apparently lives for given their plentitude throughout. The film aspires to be no more than a glossed-over and glossy stroke for and against its subject, insisting its balanced approach to Jobs’s personal desires and professional aims constitutes complexity when, in fact, all of the information emanates from the same, dubious plane of positivist proof.
The film is odd only in its contradictory methods, since Gibney, an undeniably driven and dedicated filmmaker, has his sights categorically set to replicate the same outcome, film after film. In Going Clear, inevitable takedown sequences crop up, denigrating Scientology for its abuse of members and comprehensive disposition of deceit, but none of it, especially given Gibney’s directorial scowl of self-righteous gratitude, is particularly surprising or enlivening, since it’s milking the material for maximal harm. In Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine, Gibney compiles information through a repetitious formula: archival footage plus talking head plus interrogative voiceover equals compelling new point. Moreover, Gibney is out to instantiate Jobs’s “complexity,” but that simply means revealing that he’s a flawed man by pointing out questionable ethical decisions he made in the nearly 30 years he served as Apple’s CEO.
In short, Gibney flubs the film because he’s hogtied by an unwavering insistence that Jobs’s sins need showcasing so that he can be de-canonized as a cultural saint. Fair enough, but all the film can muster is a laundry-list approach. For example, with Foxconn, Jobs denied livable wages to overseas employees; Apple eventually terminated their philanthropic programs; Jobs was engaged in backdating stock options; Jobs bullied a blogger who got ahold of the new iPhone ahead of its release date; and so on. In a particularly ironic thread, a colleague explains Jobs’s affinity for Japan as a belief in “the sadness of the soul as expressed in the beauty of things.” It’s that very thingness about Jobs, where corporate vision clashes with impossibly individualistic drive, which Gibney fails to elucidate or meaningfully characterize.