Ironically, Apple’s famous slogan may be the perfect tagline for the damning new documentary Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine.
Oscar-winner Alex Gibney, who has taken down such powerful institutions as Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and Scientology (Going Clear) is never one to pull his punches. Jobs, usually revered as the Silicon Valley genius who transformed our lives with beautifully designed technology, gets raked over the coals and is revealed to be a despotic high-tech titan willing to throw anyone under the bus, even his own baby daughter, in his quest for power. Gibney builds his case so subtly and methodically that even those of us who grew up identifying with the cool factor of the Apple image may be forced to rethink what it is that Jobs truly stood for. He takes such a big bite out of the Apple cult that the myth immediately starts to rot.
Gibney begins with Job’s death from pancreatic cancer in 2011, by exploring the global outpouring of grief for the black-turtlenecked icon. We see Apple lovers weeping openly on the streets, children proclaiming that Jobs had invented everything that meant anything. The filmmaker, who admits to his own obsession with his iPhone, wonders where all that emotion came from, given Job’s track record of cruelty and betrayal with the people in his life.
While much of what Gibney lays out has been covered before, few have taken the pains to connect the dots of Job’s greed and ruthless nature so forcefully. From the start, he won people over and then cheated them as fast as he could. From the employees threatened when they tried to resign, to the reporter bullied into submission, people who dared to question Jobs usually didn’t know what hit them.
A contradiction at his core, Jobs fancied himself a Zen monk but he got his first job at Atari by passing off his buddy Steve Wozniak’s work as his own. A tearful Woz also tells the story of how Jobs routinely lied about how much money they got paid for their team projects. Jobs once got $7,000 for a project but told Woz the pay was $700, so his half was a mere $350. Woz was stung because he would have let Jobs have all of it if he had only asked.
Even more troubling, he treated his own family the same way he treated the rest of the world.
Jobs was forever scarred by the fact that his parents had given him up for adoption but he aggressively denounced his own daughter, Lisa, whom he had with his high school sweetheart. He denied paternity, demanded a DNA test and then only begrudgingly agreed to pay $500 a month in child support. He was worth $200 million at the time. Stranger still, he did name a computer after her.
His enduring longing for the status of Zen master led him to the sacred temples of Japan time and again where he sought spirituality in stillness. Yet somehow he couldn’t find the time to visit China, where the factories in Apple’s supply chain allowed beatings and interrogations of its workforce. At the infamous FoxConn plant, so many workers committed suicide by hurling themselves off the roof, the company had to put up nets.
But perhaps the most potent part of the narrative is the exploration of Jobs and his preference for machines over people. As Lisa’s mother put it: “He didn’t know what real connection was.”
He loved his objects and felt as if they were a part of him. Before he revolutionized our world with his technology, such an intense intimacy with gadgets was considered odd. So he found a way to teach us all how to be more like him, to cherish the shiny piece of metal over the person standing next to us.
Apple’s marketing may have sold us on how technology connects the world, but in day-to-day life the results are the opposite, the film notes. We stand in a crowd, staring into a glossy screen, scrolling into oblivion, lost to ourselves. Alone.
After The Man in the Machine, you may never look at that iPhone in your hand the same way again. You truly will think different.
Steven Jobs: The Man in the Machine ★★★★✩