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'The Man in the Machine' takes a bite out of Steve Jobs' life

'The Man in the Machine' takes a bite out of Steve Jobs' life
Steve Jobs, in 1984, is the subject of a new doc, “The Man in the Machine.” (Norman Seeff / Magnolia Pictures)

It's been said that the individual who invented gambling was brilliant but that whoever invented the chip was a genius. Similarly, where the personal computer was concerned, it could be argued that it was the gift of Steve Jobs to have had a strong hand in both halves of the equation.

As detailed in "Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine," Alex Gibney's engrossing, at times unflattering documentary on the Apple impresario, Jobs was a key player in the steak as well as the sizzle, being present at the creation of the personal computer but really making his mark in finding creative ways to sell it and subsequent Apple products like the iPhone and the iPad.

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For the record, 1:30 p.m. Sept. 4: An earlier version of this post stated that filmmaker Alex Gibney had interviewed Jobs' daughter Lisa. Gibney did not interview her for the film.

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Gibney, winner of an Oscar for "Taxi to the Dark Side," has become an almost maddeningly prolific doc creator, turning out a steady stream of thorough examinations such as "Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief" and "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room."

While the filmmaker's trademark mixture of talking heads, archival footage and investigative ethos is familiar, Gibney is certainly good at what he does, and "Steve Jobs" is at its best in providing a brisk summation of the man's life. Or, more accurately, lives, for Jobs seemed to have been more people than one would have thought possible.

As the worldwide outpouring of grief at Jobs' death at age 56 in 2011 showed, to most people Jobs was a revered figure whose passing caused people who'd never met him to burst into tears.

Jobs had the gift of making objects seem personal, of knowing what consumers wanted before they knew they wanted it. As opposed to the anonymous monoliths of IBM, he turned computers into intimate extensions of yourself. "It wasn't for you," explains author and Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Sherry Turkle. "It was you."

Yet at the same time, Jobs was a maddening person to work for. He could be, says one former employee, "ruthless, deceitful and cruel," while another says his relationships with people fell into one of three states: "he was either seducing you, vilifying you or ignoring you."

As with his documentary on Scientology, Gibney faced a subject where many potential sources, in this case current employees of Apple and Jobs' immediate family, refused to go on camera.

Filling the gap are former employees, journalists and academics who wrote about Apple, and expertly curated archival footage, including an extensive filmed deposition Jobs gave in 2008 for the Securities and Exchange Commission, as well as appearances by Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, clearly still hurt at the way Jobs treated him.

One of Jobs' many unexpected aspects was a deep interest in Zen Buddhism, and it's a revelation to hear an audiotape (illustrated by some vivid animation) of his late teacher, Kobun Chino Otogawa, talking about memorable encounters with the future entrepreneur as a young searcher.

Perhaps as a corollary of his interest in Zen, perhaps not, Jobs could manifest an almost reflexive dislike of authority and rules — for instance, figuring out a way to drive his silver Mercedes without stooping to have a state-issued license plate.

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More serious situations are explored as well, including accusations that Jobs backdated stock options, allowed computers to be manufactured under hazardous conditions in China and made life miserable for Gizmodo when the tech site made public something he felt it shouldn't have.

Yet, even when former employees are unhesitatingly detailing Jobs' shortcomings, you can still feel how jazzed they were to actually have known him, how exciting it had been to be working for one of the seminal figures of a generation.

Gibney did manage to interview one of the people closest to Jobs: Chrisann Brennan, his first serious relationship.

Perhaps the most poignant interview is with Bob Belleville, an engineer who helped design the original Mac, and a man both in awe of what he helped accomplish and literally in tears about what it did to his personal life. "How bad could it be?" he remembers asking his wife when Jobs offered him a job. He, and the viewers of this unsparing documentary, was soon to find out.

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'Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine'

MPAA rating: None

Running time: 2 hours, 7 minutes

Playing: Landmark's Nuart, West Los Angeles

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