Oct 15

“The Man In The Machine”: an aimless rehash


I finally got around to watching Alex Gibney’s Steve Jobs: The Man In The Machine.

The verdict: two thumbs down. I only wish I had more thumbs to vote with.

I didn’t hate it because it’s a hatchet job. In fact, I’m not even sure it is a hatchet job. Much of it wanders aimlessly, exploring the good and bad sides of Steve Jobs.

It’s just not a well conceived or executed film — which is surprising, given that Gibney’s previous documentary about Scientology, Going Clear, was widely praised.

There’s a big difference between the two.

Going Clear explored a subject that is murky to most of us, and is based on a book that was extensively researched. The Man In The Machine is none of that. It’s simply a rehash of things that are well known about Steve, presented as if they’re news.

Most of the world has already weighed the highlights and lowlights of Steve’s life and arrived at a conclusion. We get that the man was not a saint, but we also get that his vision, drive — and yes, his personality — allowed him to achieve the extraordinary.

If Gibney could shed just a tiny bit of new light on his subject, there might be some value in it. But he didn’t And there isn’t.

The film lays out a few of Steve’s world-changing accomplishments (omitting some of the biggest), then follows those things with the inevitable “but…”

Cue the stories that reveal Steve’s dark side: being dishonest with Woz, denying paternity, playing loose with options, exploiting Chinese labor, etc. I’m getting bored just typing those words again.

At times, Gibney is determined to reveal a sinister side to Steve, though his proof is often flimsy.

For example, he brings in Yukari Kane, author of the generally trashed Haunted Empire to talk about Steve’s disdain for license plates and habit of parking in the handicapped spaces at Apple. (Probably the most trivial aspects of her book.) Her concluding thought: “It does give you a glimpse of how he thought he was above the law.”


Even on a technical level, the movie feels substandard. Gibney’s off-camera questions simply bleed into the interview subject’s microphone, resulting in low-quality sound. Since his voice was in the clear, one wonders why he didn’t just re-record it for the final mix.

Parts of the film are simply inaccurate. Gibney presents the multicolored iMacs as the first iMacs, which of course does not reflect reality. Talking about the Crazy Ones commercial that launched the Think different campaign, he says Steve was “so moved by the ad he commissioned, that he produced a version where he did the voiceover himself.” Utterly false. We at the agency pressed Steve to do the voice, and Steve resisted every step of the way, fearing that his presence would distract from the message. Only begrudgingly did he agree to record a version — but then refused to release it.

Overall, the film seems to search for the ominous, and then “discover” it in places where it doesn’t even make sense.

At one point, it’s stated that the iPhone turned out to be “an isolating technology,” pinning the blame on Steve. Yet the film’s conclusion includes the thought that Steve’s technology has brought us all together. Geez, make up your mind, man.

He notes that Apple has become a cornerstone of the American economy, and then asks, “But just how American was Apple?” because of the way it handles taxes on overseas profits. The innuendo is that Apple is a renegade, when in fact it’s as American as the other Fortune 500 companies who similarly abide by the current tax laws.

Most disturbing to me was Gibney’s discussion of the Foxconn suicides. He focuses on the case of one worker who is accused of smuggling an iPhone out of the factory, painting the picture of a man who is unjustly accused, abused and shamed into suicide. However, he also shows the contents of the suicide note he left behind, which appear to be the words of a man who felt guilty and remorseful.

Gibney’s conclusion to this segment: “If Jobs had really thought different, shouldn’t he have cared more about the people who touched the iPhones before they appeared in the hands of Apple’s customers?” What he means to sound ironic is either naive or contrived.

In the ad biz, lazy creative people are accused of “throwing ideas on the wall and hoping something will stick.” That’s what Gibney has done with this film.

The Man In The Machine is a tedious mishmash of the stories you’ve already heard — and nothing is sticking.



  • I too was very disappointed in the film for the same reasons – aimless, factually incorrect and missed important well-known details. And having Joe Nocera, a known critic of Apple say, “It’s just a phone!” shows Nocera and the filmmaker completely misunderstand Apple and the iPhone. Being a phone is the *least* important thing the iPhone does for many people.

  • Michael Ellis Day

    A few things Gibney said during interviews around this film made me suspect he made this way too soon after Going Clear. “This corporation is stonewalling me and refuses to participate with my expose of their founder…that’s exactly like Hubbard!” It’s like he was still stuck in the mindset he needed while facing off against the CoS, which is bound to exact a heavy toll on the psyche. Maybe he needed to work on some other projects in between and get some perspective back?

  • Dieter Engel

    A key indicator of how great Steve Jobs was is the legion of haters who have been denigrating him for the past 30 years.

  • Greg

    We shouldn’t really be surprised, as there only seems to be two camps when it comes to Apple and Steve Jobs, either they are loved, or they are hated. Mr Gibney would appear to be in the latter camp, and brings up all the tired, old and more importantly inaccurate stories that circulate on an almost weekly basis.
    One…Apple does not avoid taxes. They follow the law, as does every other American company that operates overseas. That makes them very American. Just because the elected people can’t seem to write a proper tax code, doesn’t mean we should hold the corporations accountable.
    Two…Apple uses child labor, and pays low wages in China. So do companies in the USA. Child labor is still utilized in the migrant worker industry, and we are not that far removed from child labor that once occurred in the mining industry, and the garment trades. As for low wages, maybe we should ask Walmart workers or wait staff at bars and restaurants what they think of their excellent wage scale.
    We all know by now that Steve had some not very nice traits from time to time, but don’t most people, especially those upon who we bestow the term genius.

  • Greg

    Update. Two current stories about Apple “DODGING” tax bill by keeping money overseas. One on Cult of Mac, and one on Huffington Post. Unbelievable.

  • NamelessCoward

    How about how the journalists from Gizmodo houses got broken into by a non govermental agency that fronts for Apple and others? They had no right! They did not restore or repay damages.

    Did they shadow the reporters? Did Apple tap into their whereabouts so the crooks could brake in th house uninterrupted?

    How about Steve threatening the engineer to not take talent with him?
    The engineer was clear he was threatned. What retaliation this time?

    How about braking the law with backwardation of options?
    At that scale you’d go to jail Ken – and so should Steve and his gang.

    One law for us and another for them.

    And Tim is lying trough his crooked teeth on the privacy issue stance of Apple.
    Apple cannot, will not and may not provide that by Law.. So its just hush hush words go back to sleep words. LIES.

    One More Thing
    You really ticked me off by downplaying the death of this poor Chinese man that was seriously mistreated by its employer. And you just brush it of..? Jesus..
    Only when it hit the news would Apple react – then you say – but they didnt know.. Yes they fully do know. Theres even abortion clinics inside the facilities..

    Its clear you made up your mind too. Pure Denial. It saddens me.

    Apple, the cooperation that cares so much about humanity.
    Cares about all the details, the humanism, the side you dont see but is such a huge part of its products.. yeah.. about that.. uhm..

    Weak article Ken. Finding flaws in retoric to disqualify a point made is another.

  • Samanjj

    It’s not that people in the know think only Apple is dodging taxes. They think apple can lead by example to the rest of Fortune 500 by paying taxes in the spirit the laws were written.

  • Samanjj

    The elected people receive donations from lobby group sthat make it harder for them to write the proper tax code. Campaign financing laws in the US are hedonistic compared to say UK or Australia. Having a bastion of ethics like Apple leading the way would be good for the US; it would demonstrate what so many want to see – capitalism with less outside regulation.

    Also Apple does not knowing use child labour. That is unconscionable in this day and age.

  • Samanjj

    Foxconn makes electronics for many US companies. They have a massive workforce of more than a million people. Having their own suicide stats (lower than Chinese median) for the massive workforce they house should not surprise anyone.

  • “We shouldn’t really be surprised, as there only seems to be two camps when it comes to Apple and Steve Jobs, either they are loved, or they are hated.”

    ‘Twas ever thus, right?

  • We’re talking about two different things.

    I’m talking about what a crappy movie this was, and you’re talking about all the evil Apple has done. Totally different discussions.

    Even if I accept what you say as truth, the movie would still be crappy — because it’s poorly assembled, rehashes familiar stories and doesn’t present a very compelling case.

    I’m a documentary fan. I would actually appreciate a well-made documentary as a work of art even if I didn’t believe what it said. This just felt amateurish. A college kid could have put together a more compelling case.

    Did you see Gibney’s previous documentary, “Going Clear”? It reveals things we didn’t know about Scientology, because it’s based on a book that was well researched. There’s a ton of meat to it — much corroboration by former church members. It’s hard not to agree with it. “Man In The Machine” seems based on little more than old Internet articles. I learned almost nothing new from it. When it comes to compelling, it was light years away from the Scientology exposé.

    You seem to be implying actions by Steve that go beyond what this movie says. If there is evidence that these things are true, then Gibney would have done well to include it.

    You can have your opinion, and I’ll have mind. I just thought it was a weakly made documentary. I know people who turned it off after watching only half. Not because they were offended by an attack on Steve — simply because they thought it was boring.

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