The last few years have seen a flood of documentary films of nearly every kind, from biographies of people and cultural events both great (Susan Sontag and Bob Marley) and obscure (the Beatles' fan club president?), to speculative films so enamored of their own wool-gathering that they never get around to making a point (unless you believe that the carpet in The Shining looks like the Apollo 11 launchpad...). Such thematic diversity makes it hard to discern exactly why we're seeing such a torrent of nonfiction films, but perhaps it's a logical after-effect of the information age: Now that we've filmed and recorded nearly everything in the world, we need someone to sort through it all and, if they're lucky, make sense of it.
Currently reigning over the documentary field is the prolific Alex Gibney, who produces three or four films a year. (He began 2015 with the exceptional Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief and followed it with a just-released portrait of Frank Sinatra, currently playing on cable.) Compared to filmmakers like Frederick Wiseman or Ken Burns, Gibney keeps a low directorial profile; the wide range of Gibney's subjects allows him a kind of anonymity. Though he's not hesitant to make opinions or label villains when he finds them, Gibney's skills are those of an accomplished journalist, describing events, placing them in context and uncovering meaning within them.
Gibney's latest, Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine, begins with the death of his subject in October 2011, as hundreds of people wept and created impromptu memorials outside Apple stores across the world. Why, Gibney asks, are all of these people so affected by the death of a businessman? And what does it mean when they talk about the love they feel for the products he sold them? (I recall thinking the same thing at the time when I realized that the only Jobs-produced item I owned was a DVD of Toy Story 3.) Gibney's film not only provides a look at the sometimes enigmatic Apple leader, but also at the myths — personal ones as well as professional — he created.
As it turns out, Jobs wasn't that nice a guy, and his company, for all its "Think Different" publicity, could be just as ruthless as any other international corporation. Image was important to Jobs and Apple from the very beginning, when the legend of Jobs and Steve Wozniak creating a computer in a garage was first created, it remained paramount to the point where Jobs may have deliberately understated his illness in his final months.
Jobs also cheated friends, denied the paternity of his own daughter and generally behaved like a self-centered ass, when he wasn't trying to present himself as a self-denying Buddhist ascetic who just happened to run a billion dollar company.
This doesn't necessarily lessen his achievements — Apple is, after all, a very successful business — but Gibney's film shows how Jobs and his peers branded non-conformity and turned it into a selling point.
The viewer is struck, finally, by the image of hundreds of Jobs' admirers standing on the sidewalk hypnotized by the glare of their iPhones, all of them thinking different in the very same way.