- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 3, 2015

It’s been a busy year of peering behind the curtain for Alex Gibney, the agit-documentarian whose “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief” for HBO raised the hackles of the celebri-cult religion this spring. Mr. Gibney now takes on the cult of personality of a different kind in the personage of late Apple founder and serial tyrant Steve Jobs.

In “Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine,” Mr. Gibney weaves interviews, vintage footage — including some rare, grainy video of an uncharacteristically nervous Jobs being miked up for a chat with Dan Rather — and anecdote with his own voiceover. Vacillating between reportage and philosophical inquiry, Mr. Gibney at once adds color to an already-familiar portrait of the complicated Jobs while seeking deeper understanding into the man behind the Macintosh, the iPod and various other devices preceded with that lowercase “i.”

Much here will be familiar. From humble beginnings as a Silicon Valley adoptee, Jobs and partner in crime Steve Wozniak began constructing computers in a Northern California garage, renting their services out to video game and tech companies before striking out on their own in the big, bad battle with IBM (at one point, Jobs is even seen giving the one-fingered salute beneath the competitor’s signage).

Mr. Gibney spends much time dwelling on Jobs‘ hyper-doppleganger persona. Much has been written about Jobs‘ fiendish temper, his domineering insistence on fealty matched by his penchant for excommunicating “traitors,” workaholism and brusqueness that eventually got him bounced from his own company. All that is here too, but Mr. Gibney shines his lens on the lighter side of Jobs in his devotion to Eastern mysticism (though a Japanese monk repeatedly told him he was not destined for an ascetic existence), his fanaticism for the music of Bob Dylan and his valiant, though sporadic, attempts at fathering his children.

As character witnesses, Mr. Gibney trots out a parade of wronged spouses and destroyed former coworkers — many of whom, incredibly, weep in memoriam for their tormentor.

In addition to their proximity in time, “Going Clear” and “Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine” share a kinship of attempting to release the veil on why their respective subjects have — and continue to — cast such a spell over an often-willing flock of acolytes for belief and device. To wit, why does Jobs, Mr. Gibney inquires in his voiceover, continue to attract such inquiry in his markedly dualistic personality four years after his death in 2011 from an incredibly aggressive pancreatic cancer? And why was his passing met with such an outpouring of worldwide grief when the megalomaniacal genius, widely known during his life for being vindictive, belittling, stubborn in extremis and, unlike his fellow and competitor Bill Gates, incredibly stingy with his millions? (At one point, we are told that upon retaking the mantle of Apple in the 1990s, Jobs promptly axed the company’s philanthropic ventures.)

Mr. Gibney provides few answers, preferring instead such open-ended Socratic queries. For him, it seems the cryptic mystery of Jobs is far more fascinating than any pedantic explanation might prove. This is both the film’s strength and its Achilles’ heel: By adamantly refusing to take a stand — any stand — on Jobs as a person, the doc not only, and somewhat lazily, invites the viewer to draw his or her own conclusions as to whether Jobs‘ Grecian flaws outweighed his unquestionable erudition, but it does the artform of self-driven documentary somewhat of a disservice.

(Say what you will of the likes of Michael Moore and Nick Broomfield, but their polemics leave little doubt as to their prejudices.)

Above all is Mr. Gibney’s seeking out the cypher whose clockwork moved the gears not only of his devices but of the culture at large. After trotting out tired David-becoming-Goliath tropes, Mr. Gibney is at his finest when attempting to explicate how Jobs‘ intelligence infused the very workings of his machines — in effect, that his very soul powered his droids.

At the conclusion of Mr. Gibney’s film, Jobs remains opaque and an enigma, his actions and his accomplishments far more understood than the demons and the dusty angels that motivated him. Neither saint nor sinner, Jobs remains a figure for continual attempts at explanation. (Not one, but two fictional works have tried in the past three years alone — “Jobs,” with Ashton Kutcher, in 2003, and the forthcoming “Steve Jobs,” with Michael Fassbender and written by “The Social Network” scribe Aaron Sorkin.)

Perhaps the most succinct explanation is provided by more than one of Mr. Gibney’s filmed subjects. The iPod, the iPhone, the iPad, the iMac, are not devices you use, the interviewees claim, but rather “are you.”

Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine” opens Friday at the District’s Landmark E Street Cinema. Rated NR: Contains four-letter words by weary talking heads.

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