Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine
Available on Amazon Instant Video, On Demand, and iTunes
American Experience: Walt Disney
Available on iTunes, DVD, and PBS.com
I grew up on a farm in the middle of nowhere in eastern North Carolina. With the closest friend some 15 miles away, television quickly became my lifelong companion. Sure, there were hours spent running through fields of corn and wheat with my dog at my side, but one can only really take about two hours of that. But television provided hours and hours of pure pleasure, particularly when my parents bought a satellite dish – one of those big SETI-like things – which opened my worldview significantly. I obsessed over thousands of films and shows available to me, not the least of which was the early days of The Disney Channel. I’m talking about the days it used to show non-stop hours of classic Disney cartoons over today’s pre-teen focused entertainment/garbage.
Aside from television, I was also obsessed with blossoming technology. Being five, I was quickly the first one in the house to master said satellite dish and, more importantly, my Atari 2600. That led to my Nintendo which led to my Game Boy which led to my first PC which led to my iPod and iPhone and iPad and Macbook etc, etc, etc.
You see where I’m going with this by now, I hope.
Given my relatively isolated upbringing, Walt Disney and, later, Steve Jobs were two men I would never meet, yet they had a profound impact on my life and the lives of billions of others worldwide. It is most likely entirely coincidental that documentaries about these two visionaries and undeniable geniuses were released in the same month. The parallels between the two men are slim at best, yet they still both shared a significant mix of traits: inherent within their significant contributions to American and, eventually, the worldwide culture were wide streaks of aggressively unpleasant – near monstrous – traits. To their credit, neither documentary hides from the unfortunate truths of both men, but neither really paints a completely vivid portrait of their subject. It is difficult to condense a full life – all of its joys, its shortcomings, and its stark and unflattering truths – into a 2 or 4-hour film, and, like many fictional biopics are accused of doing, both documentaries ultimately feel like a series of “greatest hits” from which we learn very little.
Alex Gibney’s Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine begins with the death of Apple’s co-founder and ultimate CEO in 2011. Gibney includes a montage of people reacting to the death, and his narration takes on an almost alien feeling as he clearly feels disconnected from the actions of those he films. He asks, “Why are so many people crying over a man they never even knew?” Thus, the central question of the documentary becomes, given Jobs’s equally pervasive reputation as a creative genius and complete asshole, why do people weep openly for who Gibney and others consider an at best cruel and at worst dangerous man.
Gibney spends an hour and a half on the growth of Jobs from his much-publicized and discussed adoption and upbringing by doting parents to his near half-year pilgrimage to India to his ultimate development of the machine that would become the first Apple computer. This part of the story is the part we’re most familiar with given the hundreds of times the story has been recanted in various profiles and films. There is as much time dedicated to his professional triumphs as to his personal disasters, including his poor treatment of friend and partner Steve Wozniak and the outright rejection of his biological daughter, Lisa. Yet, one thing remains abundantly clear about this version of Steve Jobs: he was at this stage in his life an immature and spoiled brat. He was a boy in a man’s body – at once eager for the success and limelight that great men earn but unable to adapt to the requirements of being a man.
After phasing through Jobs’s tenure at the struggling Next, Gibney shifts his focus to Jobs’s great second act as the CEO of Apple, and it’s this section of the documentary that I personally find the most problematic. To be fair, there is an intense amount of detail to cover in the last 10 years of Jobs’s life that no half hour of a 2-hour documentary could possibly cover it all. Yet, Gibney spent the earlier portion of the film providing a fair and balanced account of the man Steve Jobs before rushing to the end by highlighting only the most outwardly negative aspects of the late Jobs. Here, instead of focusing on Jobs’s nurturing of Pixar, the iMac, the iPod, or the iPhone, Gibney continues down the well-trodden path of “Steve was a hard man to work for.” We’re also treated to an exploration of Jobs’s involvement in back-dating of stock options and of his involvement in the Foxconn tragedies. It’s not that I minded including these facts in the documentary – hell, I lived through them, so it was nothing new to me. It’s that Gibney so obviously omitted much of what made late phase Steve Jobs even greater than the early phase. He does develop one fascinating theory about Jobs’s desire to make personal computing more personal and, by doing so, pushes people farther away from each other. That is something I wanted more of, but in the end, Gibney is never able to answer his own question as to why so many people wept when Steve Jobs died. I have my own opinions on the matter, but they were always my own and not anything I developed based on Gibney’s presentation. To answer that question, you need more information, more information than Gibney provides, and I highly recommend you read Becoming Steve Jobs by Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli. It is what I consider to be the definitive work on the man and the monster.
The American Experience: Walt Disney documentary is roughly twice the size of Gibney’s Jobs doc, but I found it no more successful. Being a self-proclaimed Disney nerd, this one was the more bitter pill to swallow. This is the documentary that told me more about Disney’s dark side than I think I was ready to accept. But more on that later…
Disney is a more traditional documentary than Gibney’s work. It starts in the early days of Disney’s life and moves along beat by beat through his years as a struggling animator, through his struggles relating to his father, through his early successes with Oswald the Rabbit, and ultimately through his revelation in Mickey Mouse. The first two hours are largely dedicated to Disney’s creation of what is considered to be the Big Five in early motion picture animation – Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Bambi, Dumbo, Fantasia, and Pinocchio. This section is an animation fans wet dream, and, although I knew much of the detail here, it is still well presented in an accessible and beautiful presentation. What I didn’t know as much about was Disney’s penchant for nastiness, bordering on hatefulness. He built an animation empire but built it in a sort of a sexist caste system where men held the power positions, privileges and income while women were largely relegated to the painful cell painting process where they literally went blind for roughly 10 percent of what men were making.
When the animators complained, an incensed Disney held a company meeting where he effectively justified his system, claiming those who worked hard reaped the rewards. If you didn’t make enough money, then you weren’t good enough to justify the salary. Excerpts from his speech are included in the film, and it’s as hateful and ugly as anything in the Jobs piece. And it gets worse from there. After the animators began to strike in support of an animator’s union, he lashes out against them – eventually engaging in fisticuffs with the animator who brought Goofy to life. Walt’s brother, Roy, eventually brought the strike to an end, but Walt felt betrayed and disillusioned by this new system of fairness. He then testified in front of the HUAC (House Un-American Activities Committee) about those who helped bring about the strike and claimed them to be communists. He later repeated the same communist theory when the NAACP and prominent African Americans picketed the Atlanta premiere of his controversial Song of the South. When we finally reach the creation of Disneyland, a little joy comes back into the Disney image, but you’re never unaware of the misery inside the man that brought joy to so many. According to American Experience‘s portrait, Walt Disney, the human being, bore little resemblance to Walt Disney, the public persona.
Like Jobs, Disney had significant father issues, something he tried to work out through Mary Poppins and something covered significantly in the film Saving Mr. Banks. But unlike Jobs, Disney tried to hide his darker side from the world by frequently going on self-imposed exiles when reality became too difficult. This naturally contrasts with Steve Jobs who seemed to wear his negative qualities on his left sleeve with his undisputed genius on his right sleeve. Both documentaries spent a lot of time combing through the dichotomy of two geniuses who weren’t necessarily great people, but does being a monster preclude you from being a genius? I don’t personally think so, I work with very difficult and very smart people all the time. In the end, neither documentary offers a robust enough perspective on either subject to give the casual viewer the whole truth. They both raise the concern of their monstrous temperaments but never try to wrestle with the implications of doing so. American Experience‘s biggest crime is that it ultimately becomes a rather one-note and rushed take on Walt Disney that single-handedly focuses on the personal failures of the man. Alex Gibney’s take on Steve Jobs commits a much bigger sin by failing to answer its own questions.
Neither man is beyond reproach, of course, so that isn’t my objection here. Yet, if you’re going to explore the personas of two men who have arguably changed the way we interact with entertainment and pop culture today, then you’d damn well better do it in a fair and balanced way. Neither documentary does that, in my opinion.
The legacies of Walt Disney and Steve Jobs deserve better.