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Steve Jobs: The Man in The Machine

IN DEATH, Apple co-founder Steve Jobs was bigger than life.

When he died of pancreatic cancer in October 2011 at the age of 56, millions around the world mourned his loss at Apple stores where they gathered for candlelit vigils and online in social media where he was venerated and remembered with hashtags such as #thankouSteve and #iSad.

US President Barack Obama paid tribute to Jobs as a visionary, “brave enough to think differently, bold enough to believe he could change the world, and talented enough to do it.”

“When Steve Jobs died, I was mystified,” says Alex Gibney in his new documentary “Steve Jobs: The Man in The Machine.”

“What accounted for the grief of millions of people who didn’t know him? I’d seen it with John Lennon and Martin Luther King but Steve Jobs wasn’t a singer or a civil rights leader.”

Gibney, who also directed “Going Clear,” a critical documentary on The Church of Scientology, admits to loving his iPhone, but pulls no punches in this tough and compelling two-hour critique of Jobs and Apple, the company he built into America’s most valuable company.

On one level, the film documents Jobs’ story through the devices he built, starting with the blue box that he and his buddy Steve Wozniak developed to get free phone calls, to the early Apple computers, the Macintosh, the iMac, the iPod and the iPhone.

On another level, the documentary explores the contradictions in Jobs’ public persona and his real life.

Through interviews with people who knew and dealt with Jobs, Gibney shows us that the driven and brilliant visionary the world now remembers was also a huge jerk.

In one segment, we learn about how Jobs cheated Wozniak by paying him only $350 for the game Breakout that they developed for Atari, when the company had paid Jobs $7,000.

“That hurts because we were friends, and that he would do that to a friend,” says Wozniak, who would later become co-founder of Apple.

We also hear about how Jobs went to court to dispute his paternity of his first child Lisa, and how he tried to paint the mother, Chrisann Brennan, as a woman with many sexual partners. Later, when a blood test proved his paternity, Jobs reluctantly agreed to pay Brennan child support of $500 a month--when he was already worth more than $200 million.

“Steve was so hugely successful and yet he treated so many people so badly,” recalls Daniel Kottke, a college friend and one of Apple’s earliest employees. “How much of an asshole do you have to be to be successful?”

A really big one, it seems.

Later in the film, Gibney documents how Jobs bullied the press and even had police raid the residence of the deputy editor of Gizmodo, who had written about an iPhone 4 prototype that had accidentally been left in a bar and that the finder had sold to the technology blog.

It also recounts how Jobs loved to park his silver Mercedes Benz in handicap parking spots around the Apple campus, and how he told people that philanthropy was a waste of time.

Yet even the people who suffered from their relationship with Jobs look back and see those interactions as something special.

One of the most poignant interviews in the film is with Bob Belleville, who, as director of engineering at Apple from 1982 to 1985, managed the team that developed the first Macintosh. Belleville admits that working at Apple consumed him and destroyed his marriage—but still sees those years as an incredible moment in his life, and breaks down in tears when he reads a eulogy he wrote for Jobs.

Gibney’s documentary reminds us, too, that although Apple is widely respected, its practices—including backdated stock options for its employees, the use of tax havens, and the terrible work conditions in the Chinese factories that build its iPhones—seem to contradict the image it projects.

Gibney doesn’t reveal anything new about his subject—most of these stories will already be familiar to people who have followed the news on Jobs and Apple. But it is something altogether different to see the people who were there and to listen to their stories, and to see old footage and photographs woven into the film.

In the end, Gibney doesn’t answer the question he started with, but suggests that we reflect on our own interactions with the devices that Jobs gave the world for clues.

“Why did so many strangers weep for Steve Jobs? It’s too simple to say it was because he gave us products we love without asking why we love them the way we do,” he says. “It’s too simple even to conclude that we love them because they connect us to a wider world and the people in our lives that are far away, because these machines isolate us too. Perhaps the contradictory nature of our experience with these gadgets mirrors the contradictions in Jobs himself. He was an artist who sought perfection, but could never find peace. He had the focus of a monk, but none of the empathy. He offered us freedom, but only within a closed garden to which he held the key.” Chin Wong

 

Column archive and blog at: http://www.chinwong.com

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