Sunday, September 06, 2015

"Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine": documentary by Alex Gibney tells a more complicated story of the Apple founder, with real footage

Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine” is a detailed portrait of the founder of Apple by documentarian Alex Gibney, and is valuable when compared to the docudrama with Ashton Kutcher. 
The film, released by both Magnolia and CNN Films, presumably will run on CNN soon but is long (at 128 minutes) for CNN documentaries (which usually are under 90 minutes).

We see Jobs (and some friends, like Wozniak) in footage taken at many different times. We see Jobs as a young man – and I recall his being on PBS in the mid 1980s talking about being an entrepreneur. And we see him near the end of his life in 2011, frighteningly gaunt from an unusual form of pancreatic cancer. This tumor was a “PanNET” or neuroendocrine tumor which is typically less aggressive than the common types. Jobs tried to live in denial and do alternative therapies, but eventually had a liver transplant.  He survived eight years. This type of cancer would not be detected by Jack Andraka’s new simple test (here ) but Jobs’s own ability to innovate is echoed by Jack.

The film presents Jobs as a “poet” or “artist”, where his output was his technical innovation, with its emphasis on simplicity, color, and visual appeal.  The “iPod” was presented as exemplary, but introducing each trademarked product name with the small letter “I” became symbolic.  This would seem to contrast with the talents of Mark Zuckerberg, for example, simply a prodigy at coding, or even with musical performance gifts.  His character, from a moral perspective, is presented as complex and filled with paradox.  He would empathize with people, but only within the confines of his own world as he saw it.  (A lot of us are like that, probably me.)  As for “responsibility”, he was erratic, as in how he dealt with his first daughter. The film largely glosses over his personal and marital life (Laurene), as if an afterthought.
The last part of the film deals with Apple’s dependence on low-cost labor in China, and with the serious ethical problems in the way Apple depended on this “People’s Republic of Capitalism”, which had serious safety incidents at its factories and installed suicide nets.  The film gives a few impressive shots imparting what it might be like to live as a factory worker in China.  There is attention to Foxconn (Cnet story with illustrations ; see also Zhengzhou).   
There were also issues with Apple’s offshore financial operations to avoid taxes.
But, back in the 1990s, after Jobs rejoined Apple (having been “fired” ten years before, after which he started Next and Pixar) the company made an incredible turnaround from near bankruptcy to one of the world’s most financially valuable companies.
The film presents current CEO Tim Cook.  It doesn’t mention that Cook offered a portion of his liver to Jobs (rare blood type), or mention Cook’s eventual coming out as gay (Wikipedia). 
The official site is here. I saw the film before a nearly sold-out auditorium (small) at Landmark E Street Saturday night, although I was able to get a ticket as a walk-in. 
Composer-pianist Timo Andres wrote a blog post “Uncle Steve” in Oct. 2011 explaining how the inventions of Steve Jobs made everything he does possible. We depend on the innovation (and associated risk-taking) of others, without thinking about it.

First pictures: 2002 iMac, 2011 iPad, 2011 iPod.  Last picture, from National Book Festival, Washington, Sept. 5, 2015 (see Books blog).

Update: Jan 3, 2016

CNN Films aired this film on its own network this evening (9 PM EST).

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