In his seminal novel Père Goriot, Gallic literary titan Honoré de Balzac wrote, “The secret of a great success for which you are at a loss to account is a crime that has never been discovered, because it was properly executed.”
Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room) adopts this cynical approach in his latest film, Steve Jobs: Man in the Machine—a blistering takedown of the late Apple co-founder and tech wizard that made its world premiere at SXSW.
“Behind the scenes, Jobs could be ruthless, deceitful, and cruel,” Gibney says early on in the film via voiceover narration. And such is the brush that this documentary uses to paint Jobs, a man revered by both tech geeks and Luddites alike for his product mastery and innovation. The Jobs depicted here is Mephistopheles in a black mock turtleneck; an endlessly alluring megalomaniac who terrorizes the people closest to him and games the system to pad his—and his company’s— bottom line.
We’re treated to a seemingly sinister Jobs from the get-go. In the early 1970s, his engineering genius-pal, Steve Wozniak, does most of the work designing a video game, Breakout. It’s made over four sleepless nights, and Jobs eventually sells it to the gaming company Atari, receiving a $7,000 bonus. The problem? He only told Woz it sold for $700, so Jobs cut his best friend a check for $350.
Then, there’s the testimony of Jobs’s high school sweetheart, Chrisann Brennan, who describes his troubling reaction to the news that she became pregnant. “Steve’s jaw quenched, this seething anger, and he runs out the door kind of like a teenager and slams the door,” Brennan says in the film. He eventually calms down, and Brennan gives birth to their daughter, Lisa. But Brennan says she couldn’t deal with Jobs’s mood swings and leaves him shortly after her birth.
Meanwhile, Jobs denies paternity. In the film, Gibney uncovers signed affidavits from the case, with Jobs claiming that Brennan took multiple sexual partners, and that he was “sterile” and “couldn’t procreate a child.” After a DNA test confirms paternity, he reluctantly agrees to pay her $500 a month in child support for raising Lisa.
There’s also an interview with Daniel Kottke, a one-time best friend of Jobs who, despite being a Employee No. 12 at Apple and integral in the design of the Apple keyboard—as well as Jobs’s former roommate who once took a 4-month long trip to India with him—was awarded zero founding stock in the company when it went public. “How much of an asshole do you have to be to be successful? What’s the moral of the story here?” Kottke asks. It should be noted that, predictably, no current Apple employees agreed to participate in the film, and all the ex-employees that do have a serious ax to grind.
Another brief segment in Gibney’s film concentrates on how, when he reclaimed his post as CEO of Apple in 1997, Jobs “terminated all philanthropic programs.” What the film fails to mention, however, is the company’s subsequent support of the Product Red program, donating millions to the Global Fund that fights AIDS, malaria, and other diseases in Africa.
The documentary also devotes plenty of time to the cache of emails between Jobs and Google co-founder Sergey Brin in the wake of allegations that the two companies—along with two other tech giants—were engaged in an illegal agreement to not poach other company’s workers. In one email in the film, Jobs writes to Brin: “If you hire a single one of these people it means war.” When a Google HR staffer accidentally cold-calls an Apple employee gauging their interest in working for Google, Brin assures Jobs via email that the staffer was fired “within the hour,” and Jobs replies with a smiley face.
Plenty of video footage is included from Jobs’s 2008 SEC deposition, including his rationale for why he gives Apple employees such nice stock options. “If the stock goes up, which we hope it does, then the golden handcuffs get tightened.”
Then there’s Jobs’s alleged financial improprieties, of which Gibney’s film dedicates close to a half-hour. In 2001, Jobs was granted 7.5 million shares of Apple with an exercise price of $18.30, but he was accused of backdating it, thus—according to the film—failing to report $20,000,000 in taxable income, which affected Apple’s bottom line. Gibney’s film claims that Apple’s CFO, Fred Anderson, took the fall for Jobs, as did its General Counsel Nancy Heinen. And if that weren’t enough, Gibney delves into how Apple reportedly holds $137 billion in profits in two offshore companies in Ireland in order to pay cheaper taxes—one of which has zero employees.
In addition to these financial allegations, Foxconn is probed as well—including the large number of suicides at the iPhone-making factories, a situation that got so dire nets were erected outside buildings, as well as Jobs’s vindictiveness in the wake of Gizmodo’s acquisition—and subsequent coverage—of a lost iPhone 4. What the film doesn’t mention is the then-editor of Gizmodo later penned a candid first-person essay apologizing to Jobs for the whole episode, and calling him “a kind man.”
While there are a few touching anecdotes peppered in, including that of a teary-eyed Bob Belleville, Director of Engineering at Macintosh from 1982-85, the entire final hour of Gibney’s 127-minute film is an all-out character assassination. It questions the inherent value of Apple products—and by extension, Jobs’s legacy. It smears him for not informing his company of his illness earlier, saying he was “obligated” to shareholders, and criticizes him for pursuing avenues of alternative medicine instead of immediately having surgery on his pancreatic cancer. It even chastises him for driving a silver Mercedes convertible with no plates and parking in handicapped spots.
Steve Jobs: Man in the Machine is a film wholly unworthy of its subject; a viciously one-sided examination of a remarkably complex individual. If you want the full picture, read the book.