REVIEW: Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine

5 09 2015

Steve Jobs The Man in the MachineAlex Gibney has made his career as a documentarian by holding powerful institutions accountable for their misdeeds, be they the Church of Scientology, the U.S. Military, the Catholic Church, or Enron.  On the less frequent occasion when he covers individual subjects, the films have never become personal portraiture.  “Casino Jack,” “Client 9,” and “The Armstrong Lie” were not about their subjects; they were about power and the corrosive effects it can have on capable men.

The same dynamic does not necessarily apply to Gibney’s latest effort, “Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine.”  The film feels more like a project the director explored out of curiosity rather than his usual genuine righteous anger.  Without such indignation, the documentary plays a little bit like one of the actual smartest guys in the room picking on an icon as a pure intellectual exercise.  His aim appears not to be uncovering some unsavory truth about human vice; instead, Gibney just brings a god among men back to mere mortal status just to show he can.

To be fair, maybe some of that needed to happen.  The somewhat excessive mourning that sprung from Jobs’ early passing in 2011 does raise some questions about how our society conflates the man with his machines.  Gibney does his best work when he can isolate Jobs from the gadgets we now treat as appendages.  His curated archival footage shows Jobs as a testier, feistier figure than the avuncular wizard who waltzed on stage once a year in the first decade of the 2000s to radically transform our communicative capabilities.  In one deposition to which Gibney frequently cuts, Jobs can barely sit still, constantly adjusting his position and scarcely concealing his disdain.

When he attempts to make a larger statement about our technology-addled world, though, Gibney’s reach exceeds his grasp.  It would be better not to invoke Sherry Turkle’s “Alone Together” than to have such a cursory conversation about it – that’s a topic for an entirely different film.  These deep, intellectual ideas just feel out of place in a film mostly devoted (especially in its back half) to rattling off a litany of underreported transgressions.

Did you know that Apple sheltered its profits from taxation in Ireland?  Or that their factory conditions in China are beyond deplorable?  That Apple participated in some sketchy hiring collusion?  That Jobs ended charity programs at the company?  Yes, prepare to have any pedestal on which you put Steve Jobs severely undercut.  But why one of America’s greatest documentarians took the time to do this research – rather than a dedicated YouTube user – escapes me.  B2halfstars

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