Documentary maker Alex Gibney made a name for himself ten years ago with Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005), a devastating indictment of the executives who ran the Houston energy company Enron into the ground. Since then he’s produced and directed some of the very best American political documentaries: Taxi to the Dark Side (2007), about U.S. torture of terror suspects; Casino Jack and the United States of Money (2010), about the malign power of lobbyists in Washington; and Client 9 (2010), about the sex scandal that took down New York governor Eliot Spitzer. But Gibney also works prodigiously—since Enron he’s directed 20 documentary features—and more recent releases such as We Steal Secrets (about WikiLeaks) and The Armstrong Lie (about cyclist Lance Armstrong) have been less authoritative in their treatment of well-trodden news stories.
The same goes for Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine, which arrives in Chicago six weeks ahead of Danny Boyle’s highly anticipated biopic Steve Jobs. As Gibney proved with Gonzo, his 2008 documentary on Hunter S. Thompson, he can go a bit moony in the presence of a cult hero, and he buys into the Jobs legend from the outset. An audio clip of Bob Dylan singing “Mr. Tambourine Man” positions Jobs (who was obsessed with Dylan) as a visionary figure, and Gibney uses the digital mourning that followed Jobs’s 2011 death from cancer to compare him to John Lennon and Martin Luther King Jr. The Man in the Machine is full of TV commercials for Apple—the Orwell-inspired spot that introduced the Macintosh during the 1984 Super Bowl, the “Think Different” campaign that celebrated various creative icons. One might argue that they provide evidence of Jobs’s marketing genius—but then, part of his marketing genius was the marketing of his genius.
Gibney pivots after a while and begins to reveal the selfish, ruthless, egotistical man inside the jeans and black turtleneck: Jobs, we discover, was a man who belittled his subordinates, shafted those closest to him, and turned a blind eye toward his company’s labor and environmental abuses. The Man in the Machine asks how a man could connect so many people with his gadgets yet withdraw from humanity into his own perfectionism. But that’s a false dichotomy; as someone in the movie notes, the first thing a person sees when he looks at an iPhone is his own reflection. In that respect Jobs was perfectly attuned to his generation, a pathological narcissist who gave everyone in the world a chance to watch himself on the small screen. v