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The new Steve Jobs documentary is an unforgiving look at tech's most complicated man

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The day that Steve Jobs died, people around the world flocked to Apple Stores in a sort of spontaneous mass pilgrimage. They left letters and signs, holding up iPhones and iPads in tribute. Director Alex Gibney shows the event early on in his new documentary Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine, and it stirred up a flurry of emotions in me, because I was one of those people.

I couldn’t really tell you why I felt compelled to visit back in 2011, and I doubt any of the others that stopped by could explain it either — at least not in any coherent fashion. It was just a vague feeling: a sense that a page had turned and needed to be marked. It turns out Gibney, the man behind documentaries like Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, was mystified by the phenomenon as well, and it’s ground zero for his film, which premiered here at SXSW.

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An unflinching look at the emotional shrapnel his collaborators took

Rather than going for a chronological history of Jobs' life, Gibney has created a documentary that is about his own dawning awareness of the many facets of Jobs, starting from Gibney’s initial status as a card-carrying iPhone fetishist (he likens his phone to the One Ring early in the film). Familiar figures from throughout Jobs’ life make appearances — Chrisann Brennan, Daniel Kottke, and iPod mastermind Jon Rubinstein all granted interviews — but largely they’re telling stories we’ve heard before: Jobs’ cruel denials over the paternity of his daughter, the insane working hours Apple employees were subjected to, the a-ha moment when Toshiba hard drives made the iPod a reality. What’s different is the focus. It’s an unflinching look at the emotional shrapnel people took when they were part of Jobs’ life, and how some of them — paradoxically — still feel tremendous love and gratitude towards him.

It’s encapsulated best by early Macintosh director of engineering Bob Belleville. He describes being hired away from Xerox — Jobs told him that everything he’d worked on up until that point had been "shit" — and how working at Apple destroyed his marriage and pushed him away from his children. Then he pivots, describing his fondness for Jobs, and then begins openly sobbing when reading the eulogy he wrote for his former boss.

I had to stop and think, Just what is wrong with these people? Who would put up with this kind of abuse, yet maintain any sort of emotional connection?

That’s when Gibney starts to tighten the screws, methodically running through the most problematic issues that plagued Apple under Jobs’ second tenure. He hits on factory pollution, worker suicides at Foxconn, and the stock options scandal that forced former Apple CFO Fred Anderson out of the company. While there are no grand revelations, it’s a methodical assault, chipping away at the hagiography of Jobs again and again.

A methodical assault that chops away at the hagiography of Jobs

Most damning of all is previously unseen footage of the SEC deposition Jobs gave in 2008. Gibney dips into it throughout the film, and it’s one of the most undermining bits of video that’s made it out into the public. Thin and uncomfortable, Jobs squirms, grimaces, and glowers, clearly furious that he’s being forced to open himself up to any sort of questioning. When asked why he wanted Apple’s board to offer him backdated options, he seems to reduce himself to a child: they weren’t rewarding him enough, he explains, and it hurt his feelings.

That’s when my confusion shifted from individuals like Belleville and turned inward. Why did those of us at the Apple Stores feel that emotional connection the night Jobs died? What horrible miscalculation allowed someone that acted like this to become the object of such good will?

Not the revelatory answer one hopes for, but that's also the point

It’s a question Gibney’s film can’t answer — and frankly, doesn’t even try to. The closest the filmmaker gets is to suggest that the conflict is indicative of the man himself. Failed, yet insanely successful. Inspiring, yet incendiary. Transformative, yet terrible. A man seemingly incapable of establishing normal human connections, who focused his life on creating products that would connect the world. It’s not the revelatory answer one hopes for, but that’s also the point.

When we think of Jobs now, our sentiments usually land in one of two buckets. He was either a mad genius, so driven in his noble pursuit for perfection that he alienated some of those around him, or an egomaniacal asshole with few redeeming personal qualities. Those are lazy reads, custom-built to spur on any number of fanboy wars without attempting to provide any real insight. But they’re also comforting, letting people build their own version of history as they see fit. The truth is that he was capable of being all of those things, as uncomfortable and contradictory as that may seem.