The Sociopath in the Machine: My review of Alex Gibney’s Steve Jobs documentary

Biographical documentary

Directed by Alex Gibney

There’s no doubt about it. Steve Jobs changed the world. Even if you don’t own a single Apple product, your computer, tablet, and smartphone were influenced by Job’s work and inspiration.

But Jobs the man was a first-class jerk. At the start of his career, he cheated his friend and partner, Steve Wozniak, out of nearly $3,000. As his personal worth jumped from $10 million to $200 million, he lied and fought in court to not pay childcare for his daughter (the mother, his former girlfriend, was on welfare at the time). Able-bodied, he liked to park his silver sports car in handicap parking spaces.

He could get away with it. He was Steve Jobs.

Director Alex Gibney (Going Clear, Taxi to the Dark Side, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room) starts this multifaceted documentary with a question: Why did so many people who never met Steve Jobs mourn so deeply when he died?

He was brilliant, mercurial, and charismatic. He could rethink the human-machine interface, hire the best designers and engineers and push them to create his vision, then step out on stage and make everyone in the audience desperately want to buy his latest toy. He built a cult around Apple and around himself.

Many of those designers and engineers learned to hate him. He worked them relentlessly and drove them with anger and insults. Few stayed with him long. One member of the original Macintosh team, interviewed for the film, tells us that he lost his wife and his children in the years he worked for Jobs.

Gibney can’t cover Jobs’ entire life in two hours, but he covers quite a bit. We learn about his interest in Zen–which seemed to be very shallow, and discover he was, like me, a vegetarian and a Bob Dylan fan (Dylan’s songs dominate the soundtrack). We discover how he bullied reporters and editors to control his and his company’s public image.

We also learn how he did everything he could to keep his immense fortune to himself. Unlike Bill Gates (only mentioned once in the film), he didn’t believe in helping others. When he returned to Apple in the late 90s, he killed policies that encouraged employee philanthropy.

The last section of the film, of course, deals with his long and largely secret struggle with cancer.

Whether you worship Jobs, despise him, or couldn’t care less, he changed the world that you live in. And Gibney–one of the best documentarians working today–has created an excellent, no-holds-barred, yet empathetic biography of a brilliant man utterly lacking in empathy.

Oh, and about that original question: Why did so many people who never met Steve Jobs mourn so deeply when he died? My answer: Because they never met him.