Film Reviews

New Documentary Steve Jobs Plays Like a Secret Sequel to Going Clear

Director Alex Gibney's choice to follow this spring's Scientology slam Going Clear with the fascinating portrait Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine might seem like an about-face. The first documentary clinically eviscerated a religion that everyone loves to loathe. Apple CEO Steve Jobs, however, is adulated to an incredible degree: Last week I wandered into a small Korean restaurant that had his picture hung on the wall.

But to Gibney, the pairing makes sense. Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine is practically a sequel. Both Scientology and Apple were founded by now-dead gurus who commanded devotion. Both are corporations that claim to stand for something purer than greed. Neither pays fair taxes, and neither functions openly, speaks freely or tolerates critics.

Where the two films differ is us. Dismantle Scientology, and audiences will cheer. Chink away at the cult of Apple, and we all feel accused. I imagine that people will slink out of Steve Jobs keeping their iPhones guiltily stashed. When they make it a safe distance from the theater, they'll glide their smartphones in front of their faces, swipe the black monoliths awake and disappear into the dream machines of their own desires: where they want to visit, what they want to hear and who they want to reach. As MIT professor Sherry Turkle describes it, the iPhone that was meant to connect the globe instead made us "alone together." In the future, will historians wondering how society fractured look to Jobs's Apple as the original sin?

We love our smartphones. In the eight years since the iPhone 1, they've become necessities — almost a human right. Though they're made of circuits and wires, our attachment to these external brains is personal. They keep us company, and in turn we fondle them, sleep with them, flip out when they break. Which is why we have this documentary about their creator, and not docs about the inventors of the subway, the shower, the fridge. Gibney's film asks, Why did Jobs's death make us mourn?

Like a ghost, Jobs — the man in that machine — rattles our world from beyond the grave. As Gibney argues, the iPhone is his spirit made silicon. "Steve always say, 'Make me monk,''' Jobs's mentor, Zen master Kbun Chino Otogawa, says in archival footage. When Otogawa asked Jobs for evidence of his enlightenment, this student brought him a computer chip. "I'm still not quite sure if that was proof or not," says the unimpressed monk. But to Jobs, it was: His trim, spartan devices were portable rock gardens, physical evidence that he was on a higher mental plane.

Emotionally, not so much. While Bill Gates donated $28 billion to charity, Jobs killed his own company's philanthropic gifts. Gibney includes a damning interview with Chrisann Brennan, the mother of Jobs's first kid. First, he denied the daughter was his. Then he stiffed them on financial support. Later, Jobs advertised that he named his first computer Lisa in his child's honor. In truth, it was the reverse: Jobs pushed to call the baby Claire, the name he'd already picked for his invention. When Brennan insisted on Lisa, he grumblingly switched course. The anecdote is telling. Not only was Jobs already branding Apple with sentiment, his personal and work lives were fused. Now, so it goes for the rest of us when our bosses send email at 10 p.m.

Gibney dissects Jobs's image with the calm curiosity of a coroner. A staggering number of former Apple insiders agreed to speak. One describes his tense exit interview with Jobs as like a last meal with Vito Corleone. Another admits the company's seppuku-strict work culture cost him his wife and kid — and he almost seems to think it was worth it. A third captures all the contradictions: He reads Gibney his unflattering funeral farewell to Jobs, and then he cries.

There are people who didn't — or couldn't — talk. A key quiet witness is Apple CFO Fred Anderson, hailed for keeping Apple financially solvent as Jobs slid back into control as CEO, and for convincing his new boss to launch the iMac, the candy-colored personal computer that saved the company. Ten years later, when the SEC charged Apple with illegally purchasing its own stock, Anderson was the fall guy forced to resign. At least $7.5 million of those ill-earned profits went directly to Jobs himself, yet he was untouchable. Analysts wagered that if Jobs shared Anderson's exile, the company would have lost $22 billion dollars. Shielding Saint Steve wasn't just about protecting Apple. It was about protecting the American economy.

What's funny is that, up until his death, Jobs denied Apple's clout. Two weeks before his resignation, Apple was deemed the highest-value corporation on earth. Yet in speeches, Jobs would fret about how he'd handle the company "if we got big." If? Jobs relished playing the underdog. And Gibney finds charming archival footage of when he actually was: a young, nervous nerd gulping with excitement about a TV interview, seemingly a different man altogether from the titan who dominated a stage in his black turtleneck.

Gibney may not like Jobs. But he respects him. That tradeoff would suit Jobs fine. Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine makes a convincing case that he was the techno-showman of a century. He's today's Thomas Edison, a branding genius who poached other men's work, savaged his rivals and murdered elephants for fun. Yet we honor these two every time we flick on a light and answer an iPhone. What does it say that the planet bewailed Jobs's death? Gibney captures the contradictions in a single image: a mourner raising an iPad GIF of a candle, the flat homage Jobs earned.

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Amy Nicholson was chief film critic at LA Weekly from 2013 to 2016. Her work also appeared in the other Voice Media Group publications — the Village Voice, Denver Westword, Phoenix New Times, Miami New Times, Broward-Palm Beach New Times, Houston Press, Dallas Observer and OC Weekly. Nicholson’s criticism was recognized by the Los Angeles Press Club and the Association of Alternative Newsmedia. Her first book, Tom Cruise: Anatomy of an Actor, was published in 2014 by Cahiers du Cinema.