Benny Safdie (Heaven Knows What) Talks Alex Gibney’s Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine

The prolific documentarian's latest seems more interested in dismantling the late Apple guru's reputation than providing true insight into his life.

I am a Steve Jobs fanatic. I have read the biographies, read the articles, watched almost every video I can find. In high school, I skipped class to watch his keynotes and later modeled my presentations about dark matter and subatomic particles on those very keynotes. I marveled at the way he effortlessly presented information from slide to slide. The transitions disappeared! He could transfer emotion about a click noise! It all just made me smitten. With Alex Gibney’s documentary on Jobs, though I knew I was going into a film that would partially shatter my image of him, I was excited. I wanted to get deep.

But after leaving a screening of Gibney’s Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine, I realized something: documentaries have to be about the subjects. They guide the narrative. The filmmaker can get stylized and subjective to elevate that subject, or simply just get out of the way. The important thing is to do what’s best for the subject! When a false agenda is sensed, then there is a failure of the form. Here I felt like Gibney was relentlessly attacking Jobs, and that continued onslaught prevented real insight.

Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine isn’t a straight informational documentary because Gibney inserts himself into the film as the narrator, hinting at a false form of subjectivity. He also inserts himself with flourishes of “style,” such as fancy title cards and animated recreations. That style isn’t being used to elevate the information, it’s being used to make it more palatable. It’s being used to put a stamp on the film, and in my opinion it gets in the way.

There clearly was a lot of skillful research done, but I still felt distanced from the main subject: Steve Jobs. I felt I was looking at him as opposed to understanding him. All of Jobs’ flaws are in full view, raising some troubling questions. Why did he needlessly steal money from his early partner, Steve Wozniak? Why did he deny paternity to his daughter, only to quickly settle on child support days before he made hundreds of millions of dollars? Why did he care so much about money? Why didn’t he give to charity? Instead of Gibney using these questions to create understanding, they are used to show proof of Jobs’ personality contradictions, proof that Jobs was a dick.

A perfect example of this flawed approach is the Gibney’s handling of the previously unseen deposition of Jobs during the scandal over backdated stock options, the crown jewel of the film. Here Jobs is accused of improperly recording, for financial gain, the backdating of certain stock options. We see Jobs in a very vulnerable state, sick and agitated, as he is forced to recap his entire career. It is a goldmine of information and emotion. Gibney, to his great credit, really allows the footage to guide the narrative, and as a result he dedicates a lot of time to this section.

I tried to look for insight into Jobs in every shift of his body, every strange turn of phrase. I found the way he spoke about his career in such a fragile state compelling. Watching Jobs sit like a little kid explaining how he started Pixar, or how he came back to Apple, is an incredible thing. But whenever I felt I was getting deep, I was interrupted, because this was where the agenda kicked in. Instead of using this footage to understand Jobs, it is used as to prove that Jobs committed a crime, and more importantly to underline that it was Gibney who found it. This is all at the expense of an interesting conundrum: why a man worth $5 billion went through all this trouble.

In the footage, Jobs owns up to asking for the options to be backdated, and thus admits to the crime. But this is where Gibney’s investigation stops. He ignores Jobs’ explanation, which is what I found more interesting. Jobs had asked for other people’s stocks to be backdated as a thank-you for their hard work, but when no one asked to do the same for him, he was hurt. He felt cheated by all the people he cared about. I wanted to dive deeper into this, but because Gibney had proven something and the case was closed, the film moved on. A contrast to this would be Walter Isaacson’s biography on Steve Jobs. Isaacson allows questions to remain unanswered, and he presents facts in a way that allows interpretation.

There are definitely documentary directors who use style and agenda in ways that are successful for their subjects. Filmmakers such as Joshua Oppenheimer, Laura Poitras, Errol Morris and Adam Curtis all look at reality and see how they can use it to emotionally affect the viewer. Josh Oppenheimer exposes large-scale tragedy to the world through reenactments and confrontation, resulting in two films – The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence – that are way more powerful and beautiful than if he had simply presented the information. With CITIZENFOUR, Laura Poitras takes a news story known by millions and makes you feel the enormity of the moment. She creates a feeling that magnifies the ideas, regardless of whether or not you agree with the politics of the film’s subject, Edward Snowden. Errol Morris has been manipulating audiences since before I was born. His latest film, The Unknown Known, which is about Donald Rumsfeld, forces you to see the world through Rummy’s eyes, whether you like it or not. That power cannot be denied. Adam Curtis’ work could be perceived as purely informational, but not only are his films impeccably researched and constructed, but his narration and subjectivity move the films to a greater plane. He imposes himself upon the film to make points stronger, not to make people think he’s smarter.

Another good example is Gibney’s own film We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks. Its tear-down of the idolatry of Julian Assange, to expose him for who he is, is done with the footage and ideas, and it works very well because it is not forced.

This all got me thinking about Josh’s and my documentary, Lenny Cooke. My brother and I were confronted with the above questions many times. Do we allow source footage to linger and questions to remain unanswered? Should we eliminate interviews because they disrupt the overall feeling? In short, should we have an agenda, or should we just report? Because we wanted to make a film that saw the world through Lenny’s eyes and mirrored his emotional state – not one that explained his world and his situation – we needed to do things differently. We worked to elevate the information into emotion and find an emotional truth, or as Herzog puts it, an ecstatic truth. We had to use style and subjectivity to fully portray Lenny’s mindset.

I’m not saying informational documentaries should be eradicated, because they are useful and sometimes even great. They allow viewers to learn about things, in comfortable, accessible ways, that they otherwise never would have. Like watching Ken Burns’ documentaries on PBS. He doesn’t force anything; his agenda is history. Those films aren’t trying to be more; this film is, and that’s the problem. It is something else, something blurry. It is the job of the filmmaker to know when to get out of the way, or get fully involved. In this case, Gibney got in the way.

Benny Safdie was born and raised in New York City, in both Queens and Manhattan. In another world he might have been a physicist, but in this one he is a filmmaker. He usually collaborates with his brother Josh. Together they have released films all over the world, premiering at international festivals like Cannes, Venice, Sundance, Toronto, Locarno, New York, etc. The most recent film, Heaven Knows What, is currently in release with RADiUS-TWC and available now on iTunes and on 9/15 everywhere else.