Prolific filmmaker Alex Gibney (Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief) churns out documentaries so quickly that you half expect them to end with a title card that says "Made in China." Gibney’s latest, an unsparing but unnecessary portrait of the modern-day Moses who brought the iPhone down from the Mount Sinai of Silicon Valley, is Gibney’s fifth feature since 2014, and the deficits of his one-size-fits-all approach are starting to show.
Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine promises to explore how Apple became the biggest corporation on the planet by convincing an army of endlessly loyal users that they were standing up for the underdog, but—as its title suggests—the film quickly abandons any sort of broader cultural interest in favor of a typical womb-to-tomb, warts-and-all examination of recent history’s most visionary CEO.
Relying on a scramble of archival footage (the most insightful bits of which are familiar and publicly accessible) and a roster of talking heads, Gibney traces Steve Jobs’s trajectory from a young dreamer to a ruthless titan of industry. Curiously, the more the film testifies to the unique velocity of Jobs’s persona, the more routine his story feels. It’s horrifying to hear how he named a computer after the daughter he refused to acknowledge was his and refused to pay child support for her when he was already worth $200 million, but his myth already accommodates the widely agreed-upon opinion that Jobs could be a public icon and a private monster. It’s become a plain truth in the age of Mark Zuckerberg: People don’t need to like you if you invent the “Like” button. Gibney seems to think that the people buying Apple products don’t know who Jobs really was. But they do—they just don’t care.
Gibney works so hard to clarify a narrative we already know that he elides the tragic poetry of someone so powerful being betrayed by his body, and he loses sight of how the man became one with his machines. Jobs was deeply flawed, but he always thought different. Judging by this rote and obvious look at his life, Gibney has forgotten how to do the same.
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