Several members of the GeekWire team watched, with high hopes, the new Alex Gibney documentary, Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine, on opening night at Northwest Film Forum in Seattle on Friday. We were looking forward to seeing Gibney focus on the Apple co-founder, especially given the director’s track record with his earlier documentaries, including Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief and Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room.
So what did we think of the new Steve Jobs documentary? Continue reading for highlights from the post-film conversation with GeekWire’s John Cook, Molly Brown, myself and contributor Kevin Lisota.
Molly: It needed to be edited quite a bit.
John: It was way too much. It tried to do too much. The tying in of Foxconn and the backdating scandal, which affected every company. Trying to put that on Steve Jobs seemed a little …
Kevin: There’s some truth to that though.
John: But it’s no different than any other company that was going through the backdating issues, or any hardware company that was building anything in China. So to put all that on Jobs? I thought it could have been a little more focused.
There were also some weird transitions. It went from the personal story of Lisa and his relationship with Lisa’s mother, and then jumped strangely into the next scene. IPO! Apple’s going public!
Todd: They would circle back to a lot of the same things. They revisited the reaction to his death at least five times. It felt random.
Molly: I just felt a lot of it was really forced. A lot of it was digging for meaning when there wasn’t any. He had all these pieces and it felt like he was cramming them together, and super-gluing them in at the end. It’s like when you’re embroiled in a huge project and there’s no clear-cut way to tie it off neatly.
John: He could have done a lot better job of just portraying Jobs as a person. I like documentaries that take a slice of a person’s life, just three years of his life that were really transformational, and focus on that, and have that tell the story of the person. This tried to do everything. I really liked the history part. The way it started, and the early footage. I thought that was really cool, but it lost me about mid-way through when it started jumping all over the place.
Kevin: That’s also when the narrator started to throw in opinions. The first half of the movie, it has very little narration, and then suddenly he gets to the point where he starts needing to voice his opinions.
Todd: That was a function of the filmmaker not having the material to show what he wanted to show, so he had to tell it.
Kevin: I thought it was a weird convention.
John: There were some powerful parts to it. The engineer who lost his kid and his wife (Bob Belleville, Macintosh director of engineering from 1982-85), who read the letter. That was pretty touching.
John: But they could have done more of that. Why didn’t they do more interviews with people who were touched and impacted by Steve Jobs, both good and bad. I thought it went off the rails when it started to tell the story of Apple becoming this huge company, and trying to make it controversial about mid-way through. If you just have people tell what Jobs is like, and have it be a 90-minute documentary, I think it would have been a good piece of journalism.
Todd: The problem with the filmmaker trying to cover so much was that he was missing key things in all the stories he tried to tell.
Kevin: There was no Bill Gates.
Todd: John Sculley made a very brief appearance, but they never explained how that happened, which was one of the most …
John: … important parts of the Apple story, how he lost the company …
Todd: … but they never really got into that …
John: … because they tried to do too much.
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Todd: I think it was one of the worst documentaries I’ve ever seen.
John: Oh my God, that’s pretty outrageous. That is harsh.
Todd: I’ll tell you why. He took one of the most inspiring, controversial, influential, wicked, brilliant characters in modern history and made him completely boring. And that’s the real tragedy of this film.
Molly: Has anybody done a good job capturing this guy?
Todd: I thought Walter Isaacson did a great job.
Kevin: I think this film will actually be more relevant 50 years from now. When the people watching it won’t have been around. It is a fairly accurate video record of start to finish. Ignoring the structure.
John: The structure is a mess, but I disagree, Todd, it’s not the worst documentary I’ve ever seen.
Todd: Can you think of a documentary that was worse? It was way too long. I was bored.
John: Bored? But what about the first 40 minutes? Were you not entertained? The touching letter from the engineer. Some of these people you hadn’t seen before?
Todd: There were powerful moments. You could just sit there and edit together a decent film out of about 25 percent of it.
Molly: Oh, I thought of a worse documentary. Did you guys ever watch Werner Herzog’s documentary about the cave people in France? That was worse. And I love Werner Herzog, and I tried to watch that film, and I just had to stop it because it was so fucking boring.
This was pretty boring, though. I have to agree with Todd. I think the other thing was he outlined the facts, and didn’t get into the why.
John: I thought he was on to something in the first 30 or 40 minutes. Uncovering him as a person, and the early days of Apple, and what it meant. Then he went off the rails. The ending was really bad.
Kevin: They try to paint this picture that these were magically the creation of Steve Jobs, and they weren’t. They just happened to commercialize them in a way that became popular.
Todd: OK, letter grades?
John: Wow, I know you’re giving it an F. Worst documentary of all time?
Molly: ‘F’ is like Howard the Duck. You can’t give this an F.
John: If you think it’s the worst documentary you’ve ever seen, it’s got to be an F.
Todd: One of the worst documentaries I’ve ever seen. There were moments that I liked. But I love documentaries, and a good documentary will completely change your perspective even on something you already know. So I feel like he fumbled it. Personally I’d give it a D.
Kevin: I’d give it a C.
Todd: Really? C+? Alright.
Kevin: I’d give it an A- for some of its content.
John: It was on a good trajectory, and it lost me in the second half.
Molly: I’d give it a solid C.
Todd: Would you rather suffer through Ashton Kutcher one more time, or watch this?
John: That one (Kutcher as Jobs) was more entertaining, and I probably got as much out of it.
Molly: Are you going to see the new one coming out? With Michael Fassbender?
Todd: Aaron Sorkin is making it.
John: How many Steve Jobs movies do we need?
Kevin: No one’s gotten it right yet.
Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine is playing at Northwest Film Forum and Sundance Cinemas in Seattle, and it’s also available to rent on iTunes. Have you seen the film? Give us your own capsule review in the comments below.