Alex Gibney’s new documentary “Steve Jobs: the Man in the Machine” is both baffled and fascinated with many contradictions inside Steve Jobs, and so are we. While he will surely be remembered as one of the giants in the history of computer technology and business for many years to come, it has been known well to many of us that he was not a very nice person to many people in his life and career, but that did not stop us from mourning for his death in 2011 as remembering how his ambitious visions changed our relationship with computer technology forever.
During its first part, the documentary looks around the major points during Jobs’ early years including his first meeting with Steve Wozniak, whose Apple I computer was crucial for their foundation of Apple in 1976. While Jobs saw Wozniak as an invaluable computer engineer to help him right from the beginning, he did not treat his close partner/friend well at times, and that is exemplified well by an episode involved with their development of arcade video game Breakout for Atari during 1973. After Wozniak did all the hard jobs on its circuit board, Jobs gave only $350 while telling his friend that he received only $700 from Atari, and Wozniak later happened to learn from an Atari executive that Jobs was additionally paid with the full bonus for the project – but he was not that angry about this deceit as your average nerdy computer engineer more interested in his profession than money.
After the successful launch with Apple I, Jobs was ready to compete with IBM, which was virtually the Goliath of the global computer industry around that time. With Ridley Scott’s legendary Super Bowl commercial inspired by George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four”, the door was grandly opened for Apple’s new personal computer Macintosh in 1984, and that was another breakthrough in Job’s career, but then he was kicked out of his own company in the very next year due to his power struggle with John Sculley, the CEO of Apple who was recruited by none other than Jobs himself.
Bob Belleville, who was the head of the engineering team behind Macintosh computer, shows us the very first one made by him and others, and he reminisces about how he and other Apple engineers were relentless driven by Jobs during many days and nights of their development project. While Jobs was ruthlessly demanding to him and many others, Belleville still remembers well those few precious moments when everything clicked together so fantastically under Job’s command, and you can see why Jobs has been admired by many of his people despite his abrasive personality. He was indeed an asshole, but he was a brilliant asshole who could assemble right people and then direct them toward his visions.
As the documentary goes deeper into Jobs’s personal life, we see more of his dark and nasty sides. Although his single-minded focus on computer technology boosted him as well as Apple to the top, that put lots of strains on his relationship with his girlfriend Chrisann Brennan, and he was very lousy to her and their daughter Lisa even after their break-up. While also naming his newly released Apple computer Lisa, he persistently denied that Lisa is his daughter until he reluctantly agreed to pay Brennan only $500 a month, and the documentary surely does not miss the irony in this heartless behavior of Jobs, who felt being abandoned throughout his childhood years as the adopted son of his parents.
Looking into Jobs’ life and business philosophy which was heavily influenced by Zen Philosophy, the documentary observes another interesting personal contradiction inside him. While the basic principles of clarity, simplicity, and cleanness from Zen Philosophy were clearly shown from many Apple products including iPod and iPhone, Jobs was too aggressive and tumultuous for the calm, harmonic peacefulness pursued by many masters of Zen Philosophy. Although he enjoyed its serenity coming through meditation, he was always eager for more challenges and accomplishments in his growing hubris, and the peace of mind was probably never possible for him until he got the ultimate one through his cancer in the end. For him, his life story was something which could be modified at any time just like computer programming codes, and he was not even that honest about the illness during his later years while seemingly candid about it in public.
We also see how Apple has become the very thing it was supposedly fighting against during its early years. With Job’s timely comeback to Apple in 1997, Apple rebounded from its many years of gloomy slump, and it soon became one of the most powerful corporations in the world. As its CEO, Jobs did whatever was necessary to keep Apple in that position, and we get some very unpleasant sights behind those clean, idealistic public images of his company. Stock options were deliberately manipulated for some of Apple executives, and Jobs did not let his engineers go easily as shown from his e-mail exchanges with Google. When a magazine writer happened to obtain a new iPhone model by accident and then wrote about it, Jobs swiftly stomped on him with no mercy, even though he gave it back to Jobs as demanded.
In case of Apple’s major contract manufacturer company Foxconn, it has neglected the poor working condition of its Chinese factory workers as well as the environmental matters associated with heavy metal materials used for manufacturing electronic devices. As reflected by one sad case told in the documentary, Foxconn recently drew considerable attention from the media due to many suicide cases of its employees, and we see the nets set around the company buildings to prevent suicide attempts.
For better or worse, Jobs made an immense paradigm shift in how we use our computers. “Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine” recognizes that with caution, and it is a well-made documentary on the whole although you will not learn anything particularly new from it if you are familiar with this remarkable entrepreneur’s life and career or you have ever read Walter Isaacson’s authorized biography. He knew where he was going, and he brought changes into our world as he envisioned, and, as the masterful and manipulative showman of his own life, he also made it sure that he would be remembered as a cultural icon as he desired. That was a pretty interesting life, wasn’t it?