SXSW 2015: Alex Gibney Takes on the Cult of Mac in ‘Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine’

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AUSTIN, TX: I am writing this on an iPad. My writing music plays into my head courtesy of an iPod Classic, one of the last of the big, 160GB jobbers. A few minutes ago, the iPhone in my pocket buzzed. It’s my wife sending me a video of our baby daughter back home, shot on her matching iPhone. We’re Mac people, is the point; have been since 1999, when I unwrapped my first iMac. But when Steve Jobs died in 2011, I didn’t feel like it was some kind of personal loss. He was a guy who ran a company — a cool company, sure, that made a lot of stuff I liked, but still not someone I felt the need to grieve for on the Internet or in front of an Apple store. I watched that public mourning, didn’t quite understand it, and forgot about it. Alex Gibney felt the same way, and made a movie.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Alex Gibney made a movie; he’ll probably make another one in the time it takes me to write this. He’s an absurdly prolific documentarian; this is the third new Gibney movie I’ve seen in five months, following last November’s brilliant James Brown profile Mr. Dynamite for HBO and the Sundance premiere of the controversial Scientology exposé Going Clear. The new film has more in common with that last one than you might think, particularly when they get to the people-lining-up-for-hours-on-end-to-buy-his-stuff scene.

“What accounted for the grief of million of people who didn’t know him?” Gibney asks early on, and his film Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine is, at its essence, an attempt to answer that question. By starting at the end and sifting through Jobs’ life by seeking out those who knew him, each of whom can illuminate one part of his story, Gibney ends up creating a kind of tech age Citizen Kane. “I didn’t want to do a cradle-to-grave biography,” the filmmaker explained in the Q&A following its SXSW premiere. “I felt there was so much to talk about, it would’ve been a stone-skipping exercise.”

In doing so, he focuses on a few key ideas. The first is this ongoing idea, articulated both by Jobs himself and by Apple’s advertising, of making the world a better place. It’s the kind of big, grand idea that we tend to swallow without really thinking about it, because it’s such a dauntingly abstract idea; it’s also the kind of thing they just kept saying until we decided they were doing it, even though it ultimately came down to making the world a better place by making and selling products to put into it. The company’s philanthropic endeavors are next to nil, particularly compared to supposed Goliath/evil empire overlord Bill Gates. Jobs’ greatest achievement, as a storyteller and as a businessman, may have been the notion that technology is a form of art. And that’s one explanation for the aftermath of his death. He was mourned like an artist.

Yes, Mac fans might argue, but they make the world a better place, by bringing us together. But do they? To his credit, Gibney isn’t a Jason Reitman-style technology scold; in his very first voice-over, he admits to not only having an iPhone, but loving it. But the question of the “alone together” phenomenon, of the smart phone as isolation object, is posed, and Gibney doesn’t have to literally comment on it. He puts his camera out on sidewalks, observes everyone’s primary focal point, and lets that say it all.

More interesting is the notion that this man connected the world, yet could barely connect to people himself. This is where Gibney’s film serves as a welcome (and, frankly, a bit overdue) corrective to the Jobs hagiography; Jobs was, contrary to what seems to be popular opinion, just a man, and often not a particularly admirable one. For his interest in investigating the less examined portions of Mr. Jobs’ life, Gibney was unsurprisingly refused access to Apple employees and many of those close to Jobs. “They said, ‘We don’t have the resources to be able to help you on this project,'” he chuckled to audiences on Saturday. “So that is a message for everybody: I know Apple is the most valuable company in the world, but if you have any extra money, I would send it their way so they have the resources to help people with reporting.”

The company will probably think they made the right call. There are stories from the early days of bonuses stolen and a denial of paternity that bumps dangerously close to deadbeat dad territory. There are tales of collusion with other companies to prevent competitive compensation, underreporting of expenses, and backdated stock options for Jobs and other key team members. There are reports of their elaborate tax avoidance scheme, using holding companies in Ireland to create a tax haven (the move is known, no kidding, as “a Double Irish”) for something like $137 billion dollars of profits.

And then there are the stories of conditions at the Foxconn factory in China, where all our wonderful toys are made, an environment so miserable that safety nets have been set up to catch suicidal jumpers. The factory stuff is a trump card that we’re all waiting for Gibney to play (and he sits on it for a good long while, well into the third act) — and one that we know about from the work of storyteller Mike Daisey and his episode of This American Life. That episode was subsequently retracted due to some errors in the reporting, and when those discrepancies came to light, you could all but hear a sigh of relief from Mac users across the nation.

Because some of it was made up, we let ourselves believe all of it was made up. We wrote it off, so we could let ourselves off the hook. We’re already seeing some reviews seizing on lesser infractions — such as the admittedly mean-spirited stuff about when and how Jobs handled his illness — to write off the the rest of the film.

So the perception of what Gibney’s done will undoubtedly synthesize into the notion that it’s some sort of Steve Jobs smear piece, which will, for many, be easy to shrug off. But Gibney ultimately goes a key step further, implicating the truly problematic party: ourselves. Stories like Foxconn are part of the moral compromise we’ve all chosen to make, investing the company with a mythos that allows them to get away with things that their (frequently progressive) users would never tolerate if they were the acts of, say, the Koch brothers.

And to that end, Gibney’s choice to unleash Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine at SXSW (and the festival’s choice to premiere it) is like setting off a dirty bomb. Look down any of those endless queues, and everyone’s on their iPhone. Peek in on any panel, and you’ll see rows of consumers diligently tapping away on their MacBooks. Gibney’s not immune to the willful ignorance. “We like the products a lot,” he said. “We don’t want to think about where they come from or how the company is managing itself, and a lot of these other things.” And, to that end, he admits “In my pocket, like [Frodo’s] ring, sits my iPhone. I still have an iPhone.” And so do I. I wonder what it would take to change that?

Photo credit: Jason Bailey / Flavorwire