November 9, 2015 -- There have been so many movies about Apple founder Steve Jobs in recent years that I tend to lose track of them, but I am glad I got around to seeing this documentary by filmmaker Alex Gibney (“Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief,” “We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks” and “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room”). Gibney, as he often does, gives his subject, Jobs, his due as an intuitive designer and marketer, but doesn't skip, or gloss over, the more sociopathic aspects of the man.
The interview in the film that perhaps best describes what it was like to work for Steve Jobs is the one with Robert Belleville, director of engineering on the McIntosh computer, one that made a lot of money for Apple. He talks about the way that Jobs controlled the process by creating chaos in the workplace, but it was a kind of chaos that led to creativity.
Belleville said Jobs controlled people by three methods: “He's seducing you, he's vilifying you and he's ignoring you. You're in one of those three states ... I ended up changing my entire life. I lost my wife in that process. I lost my children in that process. The whole structure of my life was just changed forever by going and working on the Mac.”
During the three years, from 1982 to 1985, Belleville and Jobs were close, working on the MacIntosh project together, but after that, Belleville only saw Jobs a few times, and hadn't seen him for years when he wrote this after Jobs' death: “The outpouring of feeling from people all over the world was a bit of a surprise to me at first, but then it seemed natural. He was for them a combination of James Dean, Princess Diana, John Lennon and maybe Santa Claus.”
Reading the statement on camera, tears formed as Belleville continued, “In those three years together, I packed in a decade or two of experience. Steve packed in a couple of centuries. In his 56 years, he did everything he wanted, and all on his own terms. It was a life well and fully lived, even if it was a bit expensive for those of us who were close.” The emotion of this scene gave me an idea of the wonderful, awful experience Belleville had working with Jobs. Belleville still has an emotional attachment to Jobs, even though Jobs moved on years ago.
This reflects the Steve Jobs that Belleville knew, a bag of contradictions. There were times when Jobs could be the best of friends, or the worst of enemies. He would lavish praise on his employees, and he could be cruel and unforgiving, but he was always focused entirely on the company, and the products.
The film reveals a pact between Jobs and other Silicon Valley business owners that for years prevented employees moving from one to another of their companies to get better jobs. Then there's the tax-avoidance schemes where Apple profits are funneled through Las Vegas to dummy corporations in Ireland, the nets placed around the Chinese factories where Apple products are made to catch the suicide jumpers because of the low wages and high pressure working conditions, and the Chinese employee who committed suicide after losing a valuable Apple product and being beaten by company goons for his error.
This is all a reflection of Jobs himself, who lied to his best friend, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, cheating him out of money he had earned on a game he built for Atari before Apple was even founded. Wozniak did not find out about this betrayal until 10 years later. This is the same Steve Jobs who lied about receiving illegal back-dated stock options and let others pay the legal price for it.
Steve Jobs left a legacy of fashionable, highly functional machines, but he also left another legacy in Silicon Valley, the idea that those same technological gifts are enough in themselves. The old idea of giving back to society, the Carnegie libraries all over the nation, the vast tracts of land given to the nation by the Rockefellers, the enormous gifts of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation -- Steve Jobs did not believe in that kind of philanthropy, and the majority (with some notable exceptions) of those in Silicon Valley have continued to follow his lead.
Gibney opens this documentary with a great mystery: Why would so many people mourn the passing of Steve Jobs? I wondered that myself. I have never bought a single Apple product and I never really understood why anyone would by stuff that seemed so overpriced (the profit margin on Apple products is sky high, in point of fact). Gibney never quite solves that mystery, but he does give us some good hints.
Steve Jobs was a man who was quite comfortable being alone, meditating, exploring his inner being. His products reflect this, as Belleville said, “The iPod, the iPhone and the iPad are so personal. They are warm in your hand. They sing to you when you are alone.” These products isolate people, even as they are brought together to mourn the passing of Steve Jobs, a kind of secular saint to them. The iPhone (along with Facebook) brought us the “selfie,” a celebration of the self, which defines a whole generation, and mystifies the others.
Gibney opines that while Jobs famously had problems with personal relationships (such as denying that he was the father of his own daughter) he was able to connect to people through the products he was so wildly successful in designing and marketing. In essence, the owners of these products could be, in a sense, alone together with Jobs. Maybe that is why some consumers feel such a great kinship with Jobs and his products. This makes no sense to me, but maybe it makes sense to those inside that cult of personality.
Gibney is never able to join, or understand, the choir of millions singing the praises of Jobs. Perhaps because of this, the documentary he has created seems a lot closer to the truth than anything else I've seen about Jobs. From this film I learned a lot about the man, and a little of what it was like to work for him. It rates an A.
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