This October, Michael Fassbender will join Ashton Kutcher among the actors to have played Steve Jobs. Aaron Sorkin's movie adaptation of Walter Isaacson's biography is one of many dramatizations of the life of Apple's co-founder, who died in 2011.
This week sees a quieter yet more authentic release in Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine, available Sept. 4 in theaters and on iTunes from Magnolia Pictures. Rather than offering a straight biography, Academy Award-winning documentarian Alex Gibney sets out to answer a question: Why were so many people so moved by the death of someone who he describes as "ruthless, deceitful, and cruel"? If we loved products that came from someone also described as incapable of love, what does that say about the man?
To solve that mystery, Gibney narrates as he investigates Jobs and the people whose lives he touched directly. Unlike more dramatic films, this movie's Steve Jobs is played by Steve Jobs courtesy of such archival footage the 1995 "lost" interview, his 2008 deposition about issues related to the backdating of stock options, his Stanford commencement speech and his many MacWorld and WWDC appearances, including his last in June 2011.
Balancing these familiar reels are original interviews with employers and colleagues such as Atari founder Nolan Bushnell and 1984 commercial mastermind Regis McKenna, former lover Chrisann Brennan and travel buddy Dan Kottke, pop culture expert Sherry Turkle and reporters from Gizmodo and Fortune. Absent are the most well-known Apple employees Tim Cook or Jony Ive, or co-founder Steve Wozniak, and family, including Laurene Jobs and Lisa Brennan-Jobs (although an actor reads an excerpt of the latter's "Confessions of a Lapsed Vegetarian").
It wasn't just his customers, but his friends and family, who fell under Jobs' spell. Bob Belleville, director of engineering for Macintosh, 1982 -1985, was the most emotional of Gibney's guests. Describing Jobs as a cross between James Dean, Princess Diana, John Lennon and Santa Claus, Belleville reflected, "It's easy to make chaos, and if you're comfortable with it, you can use it as a tool [as Jobs did] to get other people involved in his schemes. He's seducing you, he's vilifying you, and he's ignoring you. You're in one of those three states." The demands of launching the Macintosh cost Belleville his wife and children, but in hindsight, it seems a price he was willing to pay: "It was a life well and fully lived -- even if it was a bit expensive for those of us who were close."
Jobs, who believed simplicity was the ultimate sophistication, fell short in this area as well, but the film does not shy from moments of subtlety. When playing an old interview with Kobun Chino, an early mentor of Jobs', the film makes a one-time transition from live action to animation, using simple black-and-white line art to depict master and student. This sequence is both surprising and elegant: it stands out for being so different from the rest of the film, yet the transition to and from this sequence and its slower, simpler pace represent something Jobs never achieved. It dovetails with Brennan's observation that Jobs sought and attained enlightenment yet retained his ego. "He blew it," she sighs -- referring not to his commercial or design success, but to his humanity.
Jobs didn't seem willing or able to connect with humanity, his own or others' -- so he instead created a company that connected with people, and which helped them connect with each other. Said Jobs, "People sometimes forget that they're unique. The whole computer industry wants to forget about the humanist side and just focus on the technology. Can we do more than just spreadsheets and word processors? Can we help you express yourself in richer ways?"
It's almost as though Apple were a proxy for something Jobs lacked in his own life: If consumers loved Apple, then it's almost as if they loved him. Said Kottke, Apple employee number 12, of Jobs being adopted at birth, "That was clearly a very defining image in his life: both that he was rejected and he was special." That dichotomy would resonate throughout Jobs' 56 years.
Retellings of Jobs' life often omit details of his 12 years away from Apple; after all, "Apple was a 30-year sitcom, and Steve was the main character," said McKenna. Likewise, except for a brief interview with NeXT engineer Michael Hawley, The Man in the Machine glosses over that era and how it affected Jobs. We instead return to Apple, where Andy Grignon, senior manager of the iPhone, paints Jobs as a Godfather-like figure one crossed at one's own peril.
Yet for all these damning recollections, the film is balanced by letting Jobs speak for himself. Whether he's enthusiastically introducing the iMac to a reporter, presenting the iPad to a crowd, speaking candidly with Walt Mossberg, or being interrogated for a deposition, he never comes across as wicked or vile or cruel. Throughout his life, he's passionate, dedicated, and driven; near the end, he seems tired, even a bit scared. Even if the facts of the film were familiar to me, perhaps Jobs' Reality Distortion Field extends from beyond the grave, as I felt I saw a side of Jobs that was hitherto unknown to me.
In the last 30 minutes, this two-hour documentary hits upon Apple's many scandals and outrages in rapid succession: The antitrust suit with Google; backdated stock options; suicides at iPhone manufacturer Foxconn; and the iPhone 4 leak to Gizmodo. It's almost as though the director wanted to end on a low note, with Jobs' life petering out in ignominy. In reality, this lopsided view of Jobs' Machiavellian qualities underscores the gulf between the man and our adoration of him.
Gibney's conclusion was that our love for Jobs originated not with the man, but what he gave us -- which was more than a product. Devices like the iMac, iPod, and iPhone were personal, helping us to connect not just with each other, but with ourselves. Says Gibney: "Jobs' genius was in how he sold the iPod. It wasn't a machine for you; it was you." When Jobs died, a bit of ourselves died with him.
That's not something I think we're likely to find in Michael Fassbender.
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