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Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine

(2015) ** 1/2 R
128 min. Magnolia Pictures. Director: Alex Gibney. Cast: Steve Jobs.


Prolific documentarian Alex Gibney has, in various films, tackled WikiLeaks and Enron, the Catholic Church and Lance Armstrong, Scientology and Sinatra (both earlier this year). Now his skeptical, withering gaze has landed on Steve Jobs, Apple’s co-founder (and erstwhile chairman and CEO), resulting in the part-essay-film, part-hatchet-job Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine.

Longtime Palo Alto resident Jobs remains one of the most famous American public figures of our time, one of the main men credited for shoring up modern Silicon Valley and sustaining its tech boom. Gibney sets out by taking Jobs’ “genius” as a given, only perfunctorily investigating and defining it. The filmmaker devotes most of his new film’s running time to Jobs’ ruthlessness in his professional and personal lives, his demons and his sins.

This, and so the title goes, is the man behind the machines: a man who stole credit and compensation not owed to him, a man who initially denied parentage of his daughter and only reluctantly offered her financial and emotional support, a man who outsourced production and countenanced endangerment of his employees abroad, a slave-driver insensitive to employees and lovers, and a Machiavellian capitalist who violated ethics by hiding his financial crimes and, in the end, his terminal illness.

Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine has the slick production values we’ve come to expect out of the Gibney pipeline, and each dark episode in Jobs’ life unfolds coherently in Gibney’s own narration, expertly culled vintage footage, and incisive talking-head interviews with various of Jobs’ intimates. It may help to view The Man in the Machine as an essay film, framed as it is by Gibney wondering aloud why strangers so felt the 2011 loss of Jobs, what his machines mean to us, and how to reconcile the man’s contradictions as a self-styled spiritual creative who, in fact, practiced a rapacious selfishness of money, power, prestige, and legacy.

These are good questions, but Gibney’s film feels less than even-handed in name-checking Jobs as a “genius” without spending any time meaningfully exploring Jobs’ personal contributions to the products so many of us, in Gibney’s word, “love.” As such, no one will mistake Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine as definitive, except perhaps as a catalog of Jobs’ worst behavior. Unfortunately, most viewers will probably already know most of the dirt Gibney dredges back up here, whether through recent years of journalism, Walter Isaacson’s bestselling bio, or the Ashton Kutcher-starring biopic (stay tuned for this fall’s Michael Fassbender-starring take on Jobs).

In the film’s most striking moment, former Apple engineer Bob Belleville describes how, for better and worse, he played a key role in Apple history but suffered mightily in his personal life for the privilege. We can see Belleville, in real time, balancing his bitterness against his pride, and then something remarkable happens: he breaks down in wistful tears in remembrance of Jobs’ inspiring force of personality. And there we recognize what’s missing from the rest of Gibney’s two-hour-plus bummer. For those who don’t yet know of Jobs’ dark side, Gibney’s documentary will be a useful eye-opener, but those looking to understand what made Jobs great in almost equal proportion to his nastiness will remain in the dark.

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