Thinking and rethinking Steve Jobs has become a national pastime. Fans and the faithful have held to the image of the man who changed the world with beautiful products. Critics questioned whether Jobs and the company were happy to ride roughshod over workers in China, regulators and others that fell between Apple (AAPL) and its goals.
The Oscar-winning director behind films about Scientology and Wikileaks, Alex Gibney, has a new documentary called Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine, which opens this weekend. It looks at Jobs as a singularly divided character and then past him to the surrounding crowds of consumers. The question about both man and tech mob is to what degree will desire bury conscience and excuse what, in other cases, would be inexcusable behavior.
When the film debuted in March at the SXSW conference, much of the criticism it got from people who were close to Jobs revolved around his dark portrayal. Some of the highlights, or lowlights, include cheating his friend and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak out of half of a project fee. Wozniak was the genius engineer without whom the company's early personal computers could not have existed.
Jobs denied paternity of his first daughter, who grew up with him largely missing. Seemingly from the pleasure of doing so, he pushed people beyond the breaking point. Jobs held grudges against the people who in 1985 forced him out of the company he co-founded, even though his problematic management, including his inability to make the Mac financially successful while in charge, caused enormous failures
One might wonder whether Evil Steve was a product of immaturity and fame and wealth gathered too quickly, with experience later becoming a steadying influence. And yet, even late in his life Jobs would do things that would be ridiculously selfish for no particular reason, like re-leasing his car so that, under California law, he was not liable to get a license plate.
His excuse was that it helped him stay anonymous, but it seemed that practically everyone in the area knew of the silver Mercedes to be found in handicapped parking spaces.
When gravely ill, he and Apple's board publicly lied to investors about his condition, even though the company had long tied its success to his presence. Even when a journalist ultimately returned a prototype of an iPhone model after receiving it from someone who had found it, Jobs successfully pushed to have the man's home raided and computers and files taken in what clearly seemed an act of spiteful revenge.
When questioned by the SEC about allegedly illegal stock backdating, the multibillionaire claimed no knowledge and, visibly annoyed, complained that he had to suggest to the board that it award him additional stock as a way of thanking him for his work. The company would eventually throw its CFO to the wolves, having him take the blame. That was the same man who advised Jobs on his return to Apple to focus on a consumer line of Macs, the device that would become the iMac and help rescue the company. Jobs had initially favored an industrial line.
Jobs wanted what he wanted and would allow nothing to get in his way, even if what he wished was credit for work done by people who had faithfully supported him. Perhaps success is supposed to redeem such behavior as legend and myth reshape what could be considered cavalier or even cruel. But if that's the case, what role does the public play?
Gibney implicitly asks that question visually, showing the lives Jobs tore up, the workers committing suicide at factories turning out iPhones and iPads, and the adulation of the man. If Steve Jobs had responsibility for his actions, what about all the people whose desire for pretty things gave him the power to do as he wished?
Jobs has died and cannot change. But the ultimate question the film asks and cannot answer is: Does Everyman continue to want and take and make excuses?