“It wasn’t for you, it was you,” Sherry Turkle, author and MIT professor, says describing Apple Computer products. It’s a good line — succinct, accurate, catchy — and it catches director Alex Gibney’s ear, later recycling it in one of his many voiceovers. It’s how Gibney chooses to see Steve Jobs, a genius inventor that didn’t work for you, but was/is you. Why else would people across the globe feel such a personal connection to a multi-millionaire phone designer?
This is the central question of Gibney’s latest documentary, Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine, a cradle-to-grave story of Apple Computers and the man behind them set to the rock n’ roll anthems of Bob Dylan.
Gibney cleaves Jobs’s story neatly in two with Act One comprising the rise of Apple Computers as David vs. Goliath and Act Two following the business practices of Apple Computers and Jobs, or: Goliath Tramples the World.
Tracing his formative years to the man who would revolutionize the personal computer industry (emphasis on personal), Jobs — and his cohorts, who receive screen time but still reside in the shadow of Jobs — started from scratch and rose up against their major competition, IBM. At the time, IBM was faceless corporation that embodied everything Apple wasn’t. Apple Computers was personal, it was aesthetics, it was Steve Jobs.
Therein lies the irony for the second half of the story, Steve Jobs the Bully. After Apple became a billion dollar enterprise, many business practices were called into question: backdated stock options, anti-headhunting trusts, low wages for overseas employees, questionable environmental practices at their Chinese plants, etc. But as long as Apple kept turning out iPhones and fancy new iPods — and the visually creative commercials that went with them — then the public didn’t care. And in many cases, they would push back against the criticism.
Why would consumers go to bat for a billionaire they didn’t even know? This is the story that Gibney leaves on the table. The story of Jobs, Apple, the iPod and the iPhone is not the story of David and Goliath, but of America’s overwhelming religion of Capitalism. Americans love to buy and if that purchase can contribute to their identity, then all the better. Why else would you place a white Apple sticker on your car? What Jobs’s tapped into was the idea of branding and how consumers want to connect with their products to the point that they allow the products to define them. And it helps when that product is better designed and better looking. Why is Apple Computers so successful? Because aesthetics matter.
Though the title, Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine alludes to the man behind the machines of Apple Computers, Gibney doesn’t seem concerned with Steve Jobs as the man in the machine, but Steve Jobs as the machine. Jobs was a driven, ruthless workaholic, and Gibney fixates on this point, wondering if Jobs worked in search of perfection. A point that might not speak to Jobs’s drive, but to Gibney’s. In the realm of documentary, few are more prolific than Alex Gibney, directing 16 feature docs (not including TV episodes, shorts and collaborations) since 2010, each running approximately two hours long. If there is a man in the machine, it is most likely Gibney. Not all works of art reflect their creator’s intentions, but in Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine, the surface of the product reflects both the creator and the desires that drive them.