By Edward Helmore
The Guardian (9/5/15)
Four years ago, the death of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs triggered a global expression of mourning of a depth and duration that Oscar-winning documentary-maker Alex Gibney found hard to explain.
Were the people who gathered at candlelit vigils at Apple stores around the world grieving for Jobs, or the perceived loss of a future that seemed to promise an endless procession of gadgets and devices each more extraordinary and innovative than the last?
This is the central question that underpins Gibney’s Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine, a potent critique of the man and the company that, in tandem with Gibney’s previous work, including Taxi to the Dark Side and Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, seeks to penetrate well-defended citadels of belief.
But neither this, nor Danny Boyle’s Michael Fassbender-starring Steve Jobs biopic due next month, is likely to win the approval of Jobs’ family or Apple’s executives, since both films dwell on the contradictions in Jobs’ character – the adopted child who initially denied paternity of his own daughter; the creator of the world’s most valuable company who considered philanthropy a waste of time; the Zen seeker who short-changed colleagues, and oversaw an executive culture of backdated stock options and tax avoidance schemes.
“Steve was so hugely successful, yet he treated so many people so badly,” Daniel Kottke, Jobs’ college friend and Apple employee number 12, tells the director. “How much of an asshole do you have to be to be successful?”
Gibney says he came to consider Jobs as a “monk without empathy”. “As the guy who presided over a company that came to be the most valuable on Earth, and as somebody who came out of the counterculture, it’s a critique of how values become compromised. How you can take on their surface effects – the black turtleneck, listening to Bob Dylan, friends with Bono – yet still pay your Chinese workers a pitiful amount, despoil the environment, do shady stock transactions, pay no tax.”
Gibney says Jobs’ widow Laurene Powell initially offered to help with the project but then backed off. He claims he later found she had sought to dissuade potential interviewees from participating. Apple executives are known to regard the media with suspicion, a tradition, the film shows, established by Jobs himself – and not without some justification. The publication date of Walter Isaacson’s biography of Jobs was brought forward as Jobs’ health failed; his children had to be restrained from confronting the author at their father’s memorial.
Apple has not commented on Gibney’s portrayal. However, following a screening earlier this year, software chief Eddy Cue described it as “an inaccurate and mean-spirited view of my friend”.
Four years on, perhaps, a new perspective on Jobs’ achievements is timely, not only, as Gibney says, because “governments are withering and corporations assuming ever more power” but also because technology is assuming an ever greater role in the way we communicate.
As Apple prepares to unveil a new version of its most profitable product, the iPhone, in San Francisco, it’s Gibney’s view that the sharp contours of Jobs’ personality remain set into the highly proscribed way they function.
“There’s something magnificent he did in terms of making us feel more comfortable with our machines – they have become extensions of ourselves. Yet that’s the very thing that should make us cautious,” says Gibney.
“These machines connect us, but they isolate us, too. People at Apple get so upset if you criticise Steve. But why shouldn’t we ask tough questions about where we’re going with technology and how technology works for us?”
Gibney says Jobs very consciously created a story whereby he was the man who was guiding the universe, “but it wasn’t necessarily like that at all”.
“Jobs knew the people around him could make him great and he could make them rich. So he crafted a vision of him as the grand vizier because that was easier for everyone to appreciate and understand. He provided direction. I think people inside Apple thought, ‘Fine, he’s making us zillions. We’ll pump the bellows in the engine room while Steve goes out and tells a story about himself.’”
Through the film, Jobs’ character appears to evolve: the tech geek routing telephone calls through international networks and exchanges, the 80s Tom Cruise clone, the 90s cult leader, and finally the weakening prophet who seemed to diminish even as Apple grew more dominant.
Appealing to universal narcissism
“He was a narcissist, no question about that,” says Gibney, “but I think he wisely perceived that all of us are narcissists in some ways. One of the reasons these products are so attractive to us is that they are a reflection of who we are. That was his genius.”
Gibney believes the expression of grief that accompanied Jobs’ death was of followers cut adrift. Jobs’ sense of self-certainty (“Make great products and fuck everything else”) was compelling.
In his absence, the company has been forced to backtrack on several occasions. There was the issue of third-party apps, automatically placing U2’s new album on iTunes, the recent battle between Apple and record labels over streaming payments. In film editing, Apple’s Final Cut Pro was once the industry standard. But, according to Gibney, Apple dumbed it down, made it more rigid, and film-makers deserted it.
If David is now Goliath, are we still interested in the stories Goliath has to tell?
“Apple sells you freedom, but the mechanism of its design is extremely rigid,” says Gibney. “‘I know better than you what you really want’ – that came from Steve. Apple is not sacred. At some point, if Apple continues to go that way, people will desert them, too.”