I’m sitting on the corner of fake Obama’s desk trying to focus on a conversation and not be freaked out by fake Mark Zuckerberg, sitting just out of my peripheral vision, cross-legged with his fake famous bare feet with his fake laptop on his fake lap mugging like a real creep. Somehow less freaky is the fake Dalai Lama and the fake Martin Luther King standing on the other side of the room.
They say to never meet your heroes. When it comes to waxworks, your heroes are fine, it’s the familiar faces that are the most disturbing. Seeing fake Zuckerberg is like seeing a recently taxidermied pet dog — you keep expecting him to run over, but he just stays in suspended creepy animation.
Across the room there’s a real Ryan Phillippe. From the outside, he seems to be having an existential crisis about his own celebrity, flanked by dozens of wax luminaries, at least some of whom I’m assuming he’s actually met. On the one hand, being the only live celebrity at the afterparty of Alex Gibney’s Steve Jobs documentary gives him some kind of rank, right? On the other hand, it must bother him that no one has made a wax version of him yet. Over the course of an hour he rudely brushes off a fan who asks if she can take a picture with him and is overheard complaining to his date that no one here in this room of celebrity facsimiles knows who he is. Pick a side, Ryan.
I wonder if he’s worried if he stands too still someone will wander over, mouth agape and poke a curious index finger on his cheek to see what the “wax” feels like. In the corner of my eye I see people cuddle with Zuckerberg for selfies to be posted on his own social network undoubtably. One woman flips him off. A guy in a bedazzled tight black t-shirt reading HIGH TECH ON METH is endlessly voguing next to him. If I were Ryan I’d keep moving too, I think. Like a shark.
In the corner of the room — oddly getting far less attention than the Dalai Lama, Zuckerberg or Obama — is the wax version of the star of tonight’s show: Wax Steve Jobs (above). Unlike the online Fake Steve Jobs, this one is silent and doesn’t appear to hate women. Also, he’s paused in endless thought — a full-sized waxy version of the Walter Issacson book cover. If you squint, you can almost imagine him turning and taking a few steps to his right, releasing the cross of his arms, turning to one final audience with an impish grin and uttering those famous words that routinely changed our lives: “Oh and one more thing…”
That moment is what the evening is all about. We — me, HIGH TECH ON METH GUY, Gibney, Ryan Phillippe and a bunch of other people who aren’t giving Ryan Phillippe the respect he’s due — had spent the previous two hours at the San Francisco premiere of Gibney’s new documentary “Steve Jobs: Man in the Machine.” It premiered at SXSW and was dubbed a “hatchet job,” but the film is much more complex than that.
A complex new take on Jobs is no mean feat. There is no more captivating — or absurdly over-documented — figure in the tech world. And yet, this documentary didn’t really focus on the story of his life; thank God because the world doesn’t need another retelling of it. Instead it told the story of Steve through the reaction he got from others. Not so much people he worked with — it focused on the reactions of those who’d never met him. People for whom a wax figure might be as real and close as they’d ever have gotten to Jobs.
Specifically Gibney wanted to answer a question: Why when Steve Jobs died did so many people around the world who’d never met him mourn his passing so intensely? It’s a good question, and one Gibney spends the movie trying to answer. At the party I asked a dozen or so people if they thought he had succeeded: Everyone said yes but, when asked what that answer was, almost everyone gave a different answer.
For me, the answer was found in the portrait Gibney painted of Jobs as a monastic man who jettisoned whatever didn’t serve him, going through life devoid of many real connections, and instead finding connection in the beauty, simplicity, and absolute control over what he was building. As Jobs became more God-like and mysterious so the world’s relationship with His devices became more and more intimate. That personal connection made many of us feel like Jobs was peering into our souls. Like when you hear the lyrics of a break up song and think, “Ohhhhh this is sooo about me…”
For Rdio COO Marc Ruxin, who had invited me to the event, the answer was more more Socratic. Gibney systematically painted a portrait of a human being and a business leader who people shouldn’t have wept quite so much for.
I asked Gibney if he thought he answered the question he posed in the documentary. He said yes, but his wasn’t really a clean answer either. He talked about Jobs being this multi-decade seductress moving computers from cold large mainframes to “personal computers” to something warm and curved that feels good in our hands and that reflects an image of ourselves back to us. In the movie, he shows early footage of Jobs telling a newscaster why he’d eventually have computers in his home and talked about it as a seduction over time. Back then his gestures were like those of a door-to-door salesman, Gibney noted. But towards the end of his career he became a master at this game of digital seduction.
Later when I described the documentary to Paul Carr he gave his own answer to Gibney’s question. “Jobs was a magician,” Paul said. At MacWorld and WWDC, “he was like the magician who first makes a dove appear and while you’re still recovering from that, suddenly there are a dozen doves and then a goose and suddenly an elephant.” Jobs’ “oh, and one more thing” bit at the end of every “Jobs Note” was straight out of the magician’s playbook, giving the assembled press and fan boys and developers the same rush of watching a great magic trick — is there nothing this guy can’t do?. But even more seductive than that, Paul suggested, was that Jobs also played the role of Magic Shopkeeper. For just the price of admission — of being an early adopter, of standing in line for hours — you could take the “magic trick” home and impress your friends, like he’d impressed you. The grief, Paul argued, was less about the loss of him as a person and more a fear that there’d be no more magic.
Here’s the part of the review where Apple fan boys might want to stop reading. That includes John Gruber, who thought we “Pando’d the hell” out of the story on Apple’s overly restrictive hiring rules. Gruber should probably skip the entire movie, because Gibney absolutely Gibney’d the shit out of the Steve Jobs legacy. He didn’t come out quite as bad as scientology did in Going Clear, but nor did he hold back on the kind of stories that trouble those of us who want to admire Jobs unabashedly.
Every movie and every book — even every fanboy if you push them — will tell the early stories of bad Jobs behavior. His denials that Lisa was his daughter and reluctance to pay just $ 500 a month in child support even after Apple went public and he was personally worth $ 200 million. His brutal treatment of staff. Screwing Woz out of thousands of dollars for being the guy who actually designed Breakout. And indeed, for anyone who’s read a Jobs biography ever the first half of the movie was a bit of a snooze with little new information.
But the second half of the film is where Gibney broke with most other Jobs chroniclers I’ve seen. In other tellings, when Jobs comes back to Apple the redemption story begins. The narrative shifts to a troubled genius who reinvents the world around us, while doing his best to be a better dad and boss, flawed as he may be.
Not Alex Gibney.
Gibney hits hard at resurrection-era Jobs, but not at his personal life. He hits hard at his record as CEO when he returned to Apple– the thing that most people feel was his single undisputed triumph of his entire life. He focuses on scandals that most people in tech have tried to forget or never wanted to engage with in the first place. The illegal backdating of options. The wage collusion suit– playing up the smiley face emails that Mark Ames reported on Pando. The Foxconn suicides. The Gizmodo phone theft and subsequent overreaction. During that particular bit, we see Jobs arguing his side to Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher on the AllThingsD stage. I was at the conference that year. His arguments sounded rational in the room. But replayed on the screen by Gibney, there was something grotesque about them.
Gibney showed a man that kept clinging to the excuse of being a scrappy counter culture rebel long after he’d become “culture” as the head of one of the largest and most powerful companies in the world. And it was working — Apple was getting away with stuff the public would crucify other companies over. This magic trick of Steve Jobs was so great that people just didn’t want to hear it. They didn’t want to know. They put blinders on, gazes fixed on their screens.
Former Gizmodo editor Brian Lam provided the biggest laugh of the film when he described his reaction to Jobs threatening that someone at Gizmodo was going to get fired if they didn’t return his phone. Lam explained that journalists have a sick need to be subpoenaed or have their jobs threatened for exposing the truth. “Please, martyr me!” he exclaimed with zeal.
I should note, one thing that did delight me about the film was the commentary by many excellent journalists who were unafraid to put their careers on the line by exposing many of these stories. We’re so used to the fanboy press surrounding Apple, it was a wonderful reminder that a ton of great journalists didn’t give a fuck about access and worked to hold this company accountable to the public, shareholders, and the truth. That alone is worth seeing the movie — even if you have to suffer through the absurdity of Nick Denton describing someone else as a digital “bully.”
This film, I should note, was in no way authorized by Apple, so should it experience any great level of success, expect the usual denials and dismissals to emanate from Cupertino via the keyboards of the usual fanboy bloggers. Laurene Jobs at first agreed to talk to Gibney for the film but then apparently thought better of it. Not only did she decline to return any of his subsequent calls,Gibney told me, she banned the entire Apple inner circle and alum network from participating. Gibney was frustrated with the level and effectiveness of her reach– and this coming from a man who just made a movie about Scientology.
Gibney also noted when he reached out to Apple with questions, fact checks, and clarifications they told him the company didn’t have “the resources” to answer any of his questions or help in any way. Yes, Apple has a reported $ 178 billion dollars of cash on hand but PR people are expensive.
Gibney’s description of Apple’s control over Jobs’ legacy reminded me of a time very early in my career when I was working at the Memphis Business Journal covering Elvis Presley Enterprises. EPE had the dubious challenge of trying to grow a business off an inherently depreciating asset and core to that was changing the image of who Elvis was. There were so many legendary stories of Elvis, his eccentricities, and his excesses that in the immediate aftermath of his death, there was only so much they could massage his “myth.” But every time I go back to Memphis and visit Graceland the story is slightly more sanitized. The story about shooting a TV in his basement for instance is gone. There’s a similar posthumous myth machine at Apple surrounding Jobs. And this was a company that tightly controlled and orchestrated the press when he was alive.
Tellingly there is just one mention of Bill Gates throughout the entire film: Gibney contrasts Gates’ philanthropy with Jobs’ dismantling Apple’s corporate giving arm once he came back to run the company. It’s almost more powerful by the point he doesn’t spell out: At the end of their success, petty squabbles and rivalries aside, this is what each man stood for.
There’s also an undercurrent to this second half of the film about responsibility. At the opening, the mourning after Jobs’ death is compared to that after the death of a civil rights leader like Martin Luther King or a musician like John Lennon. But Jobs was a business man. As the film dissected his character, I started to wonder what responsibility Jobs had to be good, if he was producing something that people adored so much and changing so many industries so greatly. We’d all expect a civil rights leader to be a good human being, living up to the ideals he or she espoused, leading the world in the right direction. On the flip side, I don’t hugely care if musicians I love are nice people. I adore Jack White, and there’s no shortage of stories painting him as an asshole. But what about the leader of a massive company? Surely the responsibility lies somewhere in the middle. It’s OK if his primary concern is making money, but shouldn’t there be some responsibility for, say, the human lives in Foxconn making his high-priced, high-margin devices?
At the end of the film, there was an onstage Q&A and I asked the last question. I told Gibney that in Silicon Valley right now, there are a handful of asshole founders, and that when anyone calls them on it, everyone points to Steve Jobs as the reason there are no consequences for their actions. It’s like an “Assholes get out of jail free” card. As if the two facts are necessarily intertwined. Of all the great things Jobs did for the industry– and, this film notwithstanding, there are many– the saddest to me is the legacy of excusing bad behavior because Jobs was an asshole and Apple was the most extraordinary company the tech world has ever seen.
I asked Gibney if he believed Jobs asshole tendencies were a feature or a bug to his outsized success. He had an eloquent rant I wish I’d recorded on why it was most definitely a bug– and how horrific it would be if people patterned themselves off the bad side of Jobs. When you are the boss, he said, you are going to have to make hard decisions. But what horrified him in making the movie was just how cruel Jobs was to people whom he viewed as extraneous. His “asshole” behavior wasn’t so much in hostile takeovers, as it was to his own daughter. You can’t argue those things were key to his success, Gibney said.
But that doesn’t stop people from mimicking it, sadly. I remember an interview Larry Ellison did at the D conference, just after Jobs died. He described how absurd it was that some young entrepreneurs were dressing like Jobs in order to be like Jobs. First off, he argued, that misses the point of why Jobs wore the same thing everyday. The point was that clothes were completely irrelevant to his success and life and so why waste time on them? The room laughed. Ellison laughed. We were all pretty sure Jobs would have laughed. It’d be nice to live in a world where people viewed the entrepreneurs mimicking Jobs bad behavior as similarly laughable.