As with all brilliant people, Apple co-founder Steve Job evoked a wide range of emotions from his fans, staff and family. It’s the curse of brilliance, that you have a sharp focus to your life, a burning passion to do amazing things or deliver something truly revolutionary and just don’t have the time or patience for people who aren’t operating on your level.
I circled around the Jobs world for most of my career, including working at HP Labs when a significant percentage of fellow employees left to go to NeXT Computer (and was still there when the next wave left to start Cisco Systems, but that’s another story), and later when I was the reviews editor of Sunworld Magazine and wrote the infamous review of the NeXT system that stated it was better than anything Sun Microsystems was selling. I also worked at Apple as a contractor years ago on the A/UX project, and have been a loyal corporate fan since the Mac 512, now owning two iPads, two Mac system, an AppleTV, an iPhone 6 and even have an Apple Watch on my wrist. Yes, I’ve definitely drunk the kool-aid. And I’m well aware of the dark side of Steve Jobs, of his relentless drive for perfection and his take-no-prisoners approach to management.
Which leads to the question of whether any film about Steve will actually nail his personality, from his extraordinary gifts and strengths to his dark, brooding, über-critical side and personal demons? Certainly director Josh Stern’s 2013 Jobs, with Ashton Kutcher portraying Steve, didn’t, coming across as a typical corporate-approved story.
But CNN really starts to get to the heart of Steve Job with the documentary Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine. In fact, when the documentary was screened at geek fest SXSW, apparently a number of people walked out of the theater, complaining that it was unfair and portrayed Steve in a bad light.
The reality is that Steve Jobs did have a dark side and the stories of how he ran meetings, particularly at NeXT Computer, are legendary in Silicon Valley. If you were in one of those meetings, your mantra was “don’t pick on me, don’t pick on me”.
The Man in the Machine is assembled from archival footage and woven together with interviews of key players in Steve’s life, personal and professional. The story has a sort of Citizen Kane feel to it too, starting and ending with the public outpouring of grief when Steve died in October, 2011, a conscious narrative device from director Alex Gibney.
Some of the footage is material I hadn’t seen before, including a quite interesting deposition Jobs gave to the Securities and Exchange Commission in 2008 after the company was investigated for illegal stock options backdating. With his belief that he was the smartest, most important person in the room, Jobs often seemed to want to bend reality to match his lofty views. Indeed, that’s the so-called Reality Distortion Field that was also one of his greatest gifts.
A personal anecdote: I attended the introduction of the first NeXT Computer and remember sitting next to a young woman during the presentation. At one point Steve, on stage and in full RFD mode, showed a copy and paste operation between app windows, to which the gal next to me said “wow, I wish my Mac could do that.” Of course it could. She was just caught up in the Reality Distortion Field.
Ultimately Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine proves an interesting biography of the erratic genius, sharing his challenges and accomplishments, but never quite capturing the charisma that caused people to put up with him and really help “think different” and change the world. And the last two or three minutes, when Gibney tries to summarize everything, comes across as a critical screed against Jobs, not the summary of a balanced biography, and left me with a sour taste. Still, if you want to learn more about the co-founder of Apple Computer, for better and worse, this is a good film to watch.