Tuesday 13 February 2024

On demand: "Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine"

The Man in the Machine
, Alex Gibney's made-for-CNN overview of the life and career of the Apple co-founder and holistic business guru Steve Jobs, comes from a place of appreciable scepticism. Why, Gibney asks, was there such a collective outpouring of grief upon Jobs's passing in October 2011? (As the filmmaker adds, it was the sort of outpouring he'd only witnessed twice in his lifetime, after the deaths of Martin Luther King and John Lennon.) But Jobs was that deeply embedded in our mental firmware and pockets; the grief his passing inspired - amply illustrated in the opening moments here - was much the same as the grief cult members must feel after their leader has burnt down the compound and hightailed it with everybody's life savings. What the public was mourning, of course, was the forward-facing Jobs: charismatic, eloquent, driven, visionary, the Jobs who assured us the 21st century was going to be all jetpacks and limitless leisure time. (Even we hardened Android users might feel a pang of sadness at how capitalism continues to deny us that future; instead, it's just neverending system updates and drawers full of leads that don't fit your technology.) Gibney, for his part, proves too smart and sharp - too much the seasoned investigative journalist - to be lulled by that carefully curated public image. The Man in the Machine pulls back the curtain and follows Jobs behind the scenes, asking such critical questions as "did he know what he was doing?" to those who knew Jobs, were impressed by Jobs and/or found themselves varyingly screwed over by Jobs. Some of these interviewees speak more euphemistically than others; yet their answers lead us towards the terrible grind, hurt and sacrifice required in the hyperaccelerated creation of our new digital gods - or iGods, if we must.

Gibney himself is putting in quite the shift, and while operating at a similar speed to that of his subject. In a little over two hours, he sets out the great tech leaps forward and gleaming design, but also the betrayals involved, the contradictions within this personality, and the mish-mash of Dylan songs and New Age belief systems that were always part of the sales plan. As ever, the Gibney net is cast far and wide: it hauls in testimony from a monk who accuses Jobs of misreading Buddhist doctrine and an unexpected Wim Wenders nod. Editor Michael J. Palmer's sly juxtapositions further underline the editorial assertion that this was a phenomenon with an element or two of the con job about it. As one associate says of Jobs, "he was the kind of person who could convince himself of things that weren't necessarily true". (And thus, we surmise, as much an architect of the 21st century as anyone.) The result is a greatly more complex picture than the Sorkin/Danny Boyle fiction that emerged around the same moment, even if it places the same piercing anecdote at the heart of the film: how Jobs spent more time fussing over a console he called Lisa than he ever did over a daughter with the same name. Arguably Jobs realised home computers are just easier to deal with than human beings: the former are sleek and clean, they can be switched off when they overheat, and sent away whenever something needs repairing. (We sometimes cry when they die too, irrationally.) The Jobs that Gibney reveals here emerges as a little of both, the kind of fundamentally weird, questionably wired nerd who now routinely hacks and reprograms society: a Musk or Bezos 1.0, a manbot who deserves fealty, worship and tears far less than he merits close and rigorous study. As Gibney frames it, acknowledging the compound of silicon and bullshit that took Jobs to the top, "He is one of those mythic characters." As Apple designer Bob Belleville responds: "And they're not that much fun on the ground most of the time. And they change us."

Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine is currently streaming via NOW TV, and is available to rent via Prime Video and YouTube. 

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