Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (March 9, 2016)
It’s unclear how much interest movie audiences have in the co-founder of Apple Computers, but filmmakers can’t resist him. Released nearly simultaneously with Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs, we find a documentary called Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine.
Narrated by writer/director Alex Gibney, Machine starts with the aftermath of Jobs’ 2011 death and then goes back to look to the pre-Apple development of the computer. We learn of Jobs’ interest in the subject matter and how he and Steve Wozniak developed their first machines.
From there we trace additional developments in Jobs’ career, mainly via ups and downs at Apple. We also get occasional nuggets about Jobs’ personal life.
As expected, Machine uses the genre’s typical format, as it melds archival materials with interviews. In terms of new chats, we hear from tech journalist Michael S. Malone, Atari co-founder Nolan Bushnell, high-tech marketing consultant Regis McKenna, former Time reporter Michael Moritz, MIT Initiative on Technology and the Self Director Sherry Turkle, Macintosh Director of Engineering Bob Belleville, friend/Apple technician Daniel Kottke, former girlfriend Chrisann Brennan, NeXT engineer/friend Michael Hawley, journalist Joe Nocera, Apple head of hardware Jon Rubinstein, Apple head of software Avie Tevanian, iPhone senior manager Andy Grignon, author Yukari Iwatani Kane, Fortune managing editor Andy Serwer, journalist Peter Elkind, Gawker co-founder Nick Denton, Deputy DA Chris Feasel and Gizmodo editors Jason Chen, Brian Lam and Jesus Diaz. We also get older comments from Jobs and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak.
Given how much has been said about Jobs, the question becomes what new Machine brings to the subject. The answer seems to be “not much”, but that doesn’t make it a bad documentary, especially for those who’ve not already gotten that information.
As a primer, Machine works well at times, though it doesn’t follow as “A to Z” a path as I imply from my synopsis. While the movie goes in largely chronological order, it skips about a bit and lacks the natural “A happened and then B happened…” technique we expect from documentaries.
I view that as good and bad. On the positive side, I appreciate the ambition of the narrative, as the traditional chronological take can get tedious.
However, there’s usually a strong reason that a traditional approach becomes traditional: because it works. If a program deviates from that format, it needs a good reason. Boyle’s Jobs boasts an unusual path that succeeds, but I’m less convinced the somewhat unfocused Machine does its subject justice.
At times, it can be difficult to tell what story Machine wants to tell, as it dilly-dallies with various sides of its subject. One minute we learn basics about computer issues and then we flit to Jobs’ spiritual side and then over to his personality.
Do all of these topics connect? Yes, but Machine doesn’t link them especially well. If a natural through-line exists, it doesn’t seem apparent to me, as the shifts and changes feel nearly random.
Which is a shame, as the movie comes with a lot of good information, especially in terms of its archival materials. We see a wealth of interesting footage from Job’s life/career, and those moments add to the experience.
The scattershot nature of the project remains a turn-off, though, as it lacks coherence. It simply takes on too many topics in too random a manner. We go from technological developments to Jobs’ personal life to his spiritual life to corporate business to scandals to Apple’s impact on society to monomaniacal tendencies, etc. Any one of those topics could make for a good documentary, but bundled all together, they feel slapdash and insubstantial.
All of this leaves Machine as a frustrating documentary. It includes some good material but it comes across as so incoherent that it turns into a mess.