Do you remember where you were when Steve Jobs died?
I do. There are only a handful of historical events that I remember that vividly, and for some reason Jobs’ death in 2011 is one of them.
Even if you don’t remember exactly where you were or what you were doing when the Apple co-founder died, you likely felt something when you heard the news. Thousands of people left flowers and handwritten notes outside of Apple stores around the world to mourn his passing.
“Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine”, a new documentary from the Oscar-winning director Alex Gibney, tries to find out why so many people felt close to Jobs, even when they had never met him. It’s an excellent film for many reasons, but mainly because you’ll start watching it to learn about Jobs and finish having learned something about yourself.
Gibney, a prolific documentary director who most recently made waves with his scathing film on The Church of Scientology, “Going Clear”, is not known for pulling punches. I’ve seen many portrayals of Jobs over the years both in print and film, and based on how ruthless “Going Clear” was, I went into “The Man in the Machine” expecting something similar.
It turns out that Gibney has crafted a thoughtful, well-paced examination of Jobs that cuts through the reality distortion field Jobs so famously erected around himself and Apple.
The first half of the film dwells on Jobs’s early years leading up to the original Macintosh, his brief time at the computer company NeXT, and then triumphant return to lead Apple through the turn of the century. It’s a nice history lesson for anyone who’s interested in Apple, but the second half of the film is where things really start to get interesting.
Gibney chronicles Apple’s biggest missteps under Jobs’s reign in the 2000s, including its controversial tax avoidance practices, the string of suicides at its overseas supplier Foxconn, Jobs’ disdain for personal and corporate philanthropy, and Jobs personally driving a plate-less Mercedes and parking it in handicapped spots. There’s a particularly entertaining segment about the leaked iPhone 4 prototype that was published by Gizmodo.
None of these stories are new if you’ve been following Apple at all over the years. But the way Gibney tells them feels fresh, and I found myself constantly engaged with what I was watching even when I knew how the story ended.
That doesn’t mean this film is perfect. Apple wasn’t involved with the project, so you don’t get to hear directly from many of the key figures in and around Jobs’s life, like Steve Wozniak, Jony Ive, Tim Cook, and his wife Laurene Powell Jobs.
But for the material Gibney had to work with, which includes a few wonderful interviews with old Apple employees and the mother of Jobs’ first child Lisa, the result feels quite comprehensive.
Gibney’s voice narrates the film in the first person and he uses Jobs as a lens to look at how we interact with our gadgets, particularly our iPhones and iPads. We are completely addicted to our phones, and Jobs was the mastermind behind their creation.
Do we idolize Steve Jobs — who Gibney clearly and rightfully depicts as a megalomaniac dictator — because of his success as an American businessman and inventor, or is there something more to the equation?
He helped bring about the personal computer and the smartphones we lovingly cradle in our hands every day. We’ve never been so connected to technology thanks to Steve Jobs and Apple, and that fact somehow makes us feel closer to him than we would otherwise.
I was surprised with how introspective Gibney got towards the end of the film. I don’t want to spoil anything, so I’ll just say that you don’t need to be a tech enthusiast or know a lot about Steve Jobs to get something out of “The Man in the Machine.” It’s a film everyone should see, because at the end of the day, we’re all addicted to the technology Jobs helped create — whether we realise it or not.
In a sense, we all are the man in the machine.
Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine starts playing in theatres, on-demand, and in the iTunes Store on September 4.
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