“I didn’t make this film because I said ‘let’s look at Steve Jobs’ dark side,’ ” says director Alex Gibney. “It was ‘let’s try to understand something very simple: Where did all this public grief come from?’ ”
NEW YORK — As the man who enabled phones to play music and laptops to sing, Steve Jobs was beloved in ways few modern executives have been. When the Apple co-founder died in October 2011, admirers around the world were so moved they gathered in tearful vigil and created a range of online and real-world tributes.
The documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney witnessed that sight. But rather than join the mourners, he had a different reaction: He asked why one stranger’s death prompted such an outpouring of emotion.
“Why do we idolize Steve Jobs? He didn’t write code, he wasn’t an engineer, and it certainly wasn’t simply the fact that he made a lot of money,” said Gibney, explaining both his personal feelings from the time and his motivations to explore the subject cinematically.
“I didn’t make this film because I said ‘let’s look at Steve Jobs’ dark side,’ ” he continued. “It was ‘let’s try to understand something very simple: Where did all this public grief come from?’ ”
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The film is Gibney’s “Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine.” (Look for a review online today and in Friday’s Weekend Plus.) It kicks off a mini-season of Apple on U.S. movie screens, with “Steve Jobs,” Danny Boyle’s dramatization of key moments in the tech magnate’s life starring Michael Fassbender, coming to theaters this fall.
Though Gibney may not have consciously set out to expose his subject’s unsavory side, the question “What made Jobs so embraced by strangers?” leads him inevitably to “What made Jobs so polarizing to those who knew him well?”
As Gibney unsparingly shows, the Apple visionary transformed lives with his relentless commitment to a future filled with cool, populist technology. He also made a lot of individual lives difficult with that relentlessness. (It is a subject, incidentally, that will seem especially timely in light of the furor over Amazon’s treatment of its employees.)
The engineer who helped create the Mac, Bob Belleville, can be seen breaking down crying in the movie as he described the toll it took on his marriage and other aspects of his life. Jobs’ daughter, Lisa Brennan-Jobs, describes a father remote and lacking in generosity. Jobs’ reaction to a tech blog’s reportage on a new Apple product, meanwhile, is depicted as a fierce overreaction.
“High-octane individuals like Jobs are not necessarily great people,” Gibney said. “But as a society we seem to have made a compact that if they do great things we should let them off the hook. And that doesn’t really seem like a good idea.”
With this film, Gibney is again taking on a much-covered news subject and finding unexpected angles, as he did in the recent Scientology investigation “Going Clear,” the WikiLeaks movie “We Steal Secrets,” the church-scandal documentary “Mea Maxima Culpa,” the Eliot Spitzer exploration “Client 9” and the Lance Armstrong pic “The Armstrong Lie.” All of these films are essential, forensic investigations into subjects we thought we knew.
“I’m drawn to these public stories that I think have been inadequately handled,” said Gibney. “People make up their minds so quickly on them, because they’re covered so quickly. I think it’s important to go back.”
That the executive could be a difficult person will not be news to those familiar with coverage of Apple or who read Walter Isaacson’s biography shortly after Jobs died. But the film goes further than the book in isolating some of the ways Jobs could be unstinting while, as a visual piece, offering a more concentrated punch to the hagiographic myth.
In “Steve Jobs,” Gibney asks whether the correlation between genius and difficulty is not only strong but unavoidable.
The director’s starting point — about what made Jobs so liked — does not yield a singular conclusion. But the director does see Jobs’ power as coming from what he represented as much as who he was.
“Steve Jobs was a marriage broker between us and these devices; he understood how to create a connection between us and machines,” Gibney said.
“And he was a performer, an evangelist, really. When you view it that way, it makes sense that there would be an outpouring of grief …
“Our media climate is often all good or all bad, all binary. It’s this point-counterpoint view we have of the world and certainly of public figures. It seems so misguided. If we think this way we’re either going to be radically misinformed or disappointed.”