AUSTIN—Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine hasn’t even been widely released yet, and it’s already stirring the controversy pot. Early reviews have called it cynical (and similar in tone to Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs), Eddy Cue spoke out against this “mean spirited” film on Twitter, and rumors of Apple employees walking out of the theater have been circulating since the film’s premier earlier in March.
But in quiet a meet-and-greet with the press the day after the film’s first screening at the South by Southwest Film festival, director Alex Gibney said he didn’t set out to make a negative film—he just wanted to get a better understanding of the world’s fascination with this man.
Gibney, who also directed the Oscar-winning Taxi to the Dark Side and the soon-to-be-released Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, decided to take a more personal approach with this film.
“I read Walter [Isaacson]’s book, and I followed Jobs from afar, so I felt connected to him,” Gibney said. He narrated the film himself, exploring Jobs’s life after seeing the world react to his death in 2011—but Jobs functions as the de facto narrator of his own story through unfiltered videos and archival footage.
When asked if he actually liked Jobs, Gibney had a mixed response. He was awed by Jobs, but “appalled by his cruelty and his inability to get outside of himself.”
Jobs’s “cruelty,” as Gibney describes it, was stressed over and over again throughout the documentary. Gibney dedicated a lot of time describing Jobs’s need for control: his need to control the press by deciding which writers from which publications would be granted access; his need to be in control of his own paternity and his attempt to distance himself from his first child and her mother, Chrisann Brennan; and how he reacted when Gizmodo got hold of a lost iPhone 4 prototype that had been left in a bar—a major loss of control, for Jobs.
However, it was this need for control that Gibney identified with, in a way.
“I see myself in him, especially in his quest for perfection,” he shared.
Throughout the film, Gibney questions Jobs’s personal values and how that bled into his work at Apple.
“I don’t think [Jobs] got to see that the values of Apple were not the same as Cesar Chavez of even Bill Gates,” Gibney said. “He believed in making the world a better place by making better products, and that’s it.”
Gibney demonstrated this by showcasing Jobs’s lack of interest in Foxconn’s working conditions and his backdating of company stock options—questionable practices, yet Jobs believed he was making the best decisions for his company.
Gibney acknowledges that many Apple fanboys won’t like the film—especially these harder-to-watch sequences—since it’s pretty critical of Jobs overall. He hopes that people will look at it from a broader scope, and recognize the conflicting ideals that made Jobs who he was.
The yin and yang
Above all, Gibney described Jobs as a walking contradiction—a man with undefined values, yet a practicing Buddhist. A man who wanted to make the world a better place, yet who did so through making tech products.
To demonstrate these conflicting messages, Gibney said he purposefully used different editing techniques to drive this home: For example, he’d abruptly cut to a silent Japanese garden from a scene blasting a Bob Dylan song, and he used simple animated sequences during excepts with Jobs’s spiritual mentor, Kobun Chino Otogawa.
But his biggest conflict—as told by Gibney—seemed to be Jobs’s struggle in maintaining close friendships and relationships.