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Steve Jobs painted as 'ruthless' villain in new documentary

Aaron Pressman
Steve Jobs painted as 'ruthless' villain in new documentary

Steve Jobs will long be remembered as one of the most brilliant businessmen in American history, but the details of his portrait remain hotly in dispute.

Walter Isaacson's 2011 authorized biography, fueled by 40 interviews with the subject, came first. But the book, rushed into print in the aftermath of Jobs' death, has drawn criticism from fans and supporters of the late Apple CEO, who say it painted too negative a picture of a complex man. Many techies say Isaacson also failed to understand the computer industry and thus didn't provide the proper context for Jobs' story.

Now come two new entries revisiting the Jobs historical record. Documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney's "Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine" debuted at the South by Southwest festival earlier this month. And this week, the new book "Becoming Steve Jobs" written by two former Fortune magazine colleagues, Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli, hit stores.

Gibney, who made the 2007 Oscar-award winning documentary "Taxi to the Dark Side," leaves little doubt about which side of the Jobs debate he favors. "Jobs could be ruthless, deceitful and cruel," he says in a voiceover near the start of the film. (No doubt, those sorts of comments prompted Apple senior vice president Eddy Cue to diss the film on Twitter as an "inaccurate and mean-spirited view of my friend.")

One of the great strengths of Gibney's film is the wide range of footage he has collected of Jobs. It's one thing to read about Jobs' charismatic sales pitches or harsh words toward underlings, but it's more powerful on video.

"Man in the Machine" offers snippets of Jobs working at Apple and NeXT Computer, in interviews and depositions, speaking before large groups and small. Some are well known, like his 2007 introduction of the iPhone or his 2005 commencement at Stanford University. But most are fresh and unfamiliar. Jobs batting down ideas at an early meeting of his second startup, NeXT Computer, or sparring with lawyers from the Securities and Exchange Commission during a 2008 deposition.

In the same way, seeing and hearing Jobs' former lieutenants describe their old boss in their own words is often far more compelling than on the printed page. Former Apple iPhone engineer Andy Grigon describes Jobs' efforts to convince him not to leave the company as "a half hour mindfuck... it becomes very Godfather-esque." Former head of hardware Jon Rubinstein explains the famed Jobs reality distortion field: "If he told you the sky was green, for a while you’d kind of go, yeah, the sky's green."

Few revelations

Without the cooperation of any current Apple executives, there's little new dirt in Gibney's film about Jobs' successful run of developing new products, from the iMac to the iPod to the iPhone and iPad. And there's a lot of time spent interviewing journalists who recount stories they've written previously about Apple. (Full disclosure: Yahoo Finance Editor-in-Chief Andy Serwer appears in the film to discuss his dealings with Jobs at Fortune Magazine).

But Gibney devotes a substantial amount of time to larger questions. Jobs was at the forefront of another trend, one less glamorous and praiseworthy, of American corporations bending -- and even breaking -- the law in pursuit of ever greater shareholder value.

As Gibney lays out in detail, Apple under Jobs avoided billions of dollars of U.S. taxes, backdated options, colluded with competitors to stop recruiting each other's employees and partnered with Chinese manufacturers that didn't always treat their workers well.

Though Apple was hardly alone in these questionable practices, the film connects the policy decisions with Jobs' own personality and management style. He was the kind of person who parked regularly in a handicapped spot at Apple headquarters and took the carpool lane even when he drove alone (incredibly, Gibney has both incidents captured on film).

But there's a sense of piling on as Gibney makes his case against Jobs. There's no room for nuance or debate over the more controversial incidents, which are framed by weighty rhetorical questions from Gibney. "Just how American was Apple," he intones before a discussion of the company's tax avoidance. 

Behind the scenes on iPad and iPhone development

In their book "Becoming Steve Jobs," Schlender and Tetzeli are much less interested in these kinds of larger issues. They've written a biography close to the ground, filled with details of Jobs' life from the mundane to the extraordinary. Many of those interesting details come from on-the-record interviews with Apple's current top management, which seems to have viewed the new book as a chance to challenge much in Isaacson's earlier account.

Some of the ground has been covered before, some many, many times before. Here again we have the early story of Jobs cheating his partner and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak out of a $2,500 bonus from Atari. And again the tale of how Jobs recruited John Sculley from Pepsi to run his company only to be stabbed in the back when Sculley convinced Apple's board to fire Jobs.

But there is also much that is new, including behind-the-scenes stories of the development of the iPhone and iPad, part of a secret effort known as "Project Purple."

Head designer Jony Ive relates an anecdote that may explain the far greater success of the iPhone over the iPad to this day. Jobs chose to proceed with the phone before the tablet, explaining "I don't know if I can convince people that the tablet is a product category that has real value, but I know I can convince people they need a better phone."

Scandals like the options backdating mess or the ebook price-fixing charges that came later (and have not been settled, despite what Schlender and Tetzeli write) are relegated to a few pages each in a late chapter called "Blind Spots, Grudges, And Sharp Elbows."

In the end, it will take many more books and films to fill out a fuller historical portrait of Steve Jobs. But both new entries make solid contributions to the field.