Steve Jobs: A strange life makes a great documentary


OK, the world doesn't have a shortage of Steve Jobs biographies. (Walter Isaacson's best-seller was followed by two movies, one of them written by Aaron Sorkin.) Still, the newest project -- a documentary that airs Jan. 3 and 9 on CNN -- is compelling. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

For a good
biography, you need a life of contrasts and conflicts. For a great
one, you need ... well, someone like Steve Jobs.

Before starting his
Jobs film, Alex Gibney already knew large lives; he'd done profiles
of Frank Sinatra, James Brown, Lance Armstrong and more. Still, Jobs
stands out.

“I was fascinated
by his interest in Zen Buddhism .... He always came across as this
counter-culture figure,” Gibney said.

Here was a
long-haired guy in bluejeans, sometimes barefoot. In his parents'
garage, he had started Apple, battling IBM and drawing admirers
worldwide. “He was, for them, a combination of James Dean, Princess
Diana, John Lennon and maybe Santa Claus,” Bill Belleville, a
former colleague, wrote after Jobs' death (at 56, of pancreatic
cancer) in 2011.

Jobs encouraged such
images, Gibney said. “He talked about values as if he was embodying
those values.” Still, he often seemed to emulate the corporations
he'd fought. The film talks about Jobs:

-- Hiding millions
in income, via backdated options.

-- Hiding billions
in Apple profits, through overseas corporations, one of which had
zero employees.

-- Ducking even tiny
amounts. He avoided buying license plates by getting a new lease
every six months; he fought in court, before agreeing to pay $500 a
month in child support ... shortly before becoming worth almost $200
million.

-- And rarely
spreading his good fortune. “He torched the philanthropy program
(at Apple),” Gibney said. “That was when they were in financial
trouble, but he did nothing to bring it back” afterward.

Still, Jobs saw
himself as a counterculture hero. “He could convince himself of
things that weren't necessarily true,” former colleage Ave Tevanian
says in the films.

When Jobs was a
teenager, for instance, his friend Steve Wozniak created a variation
on the “blue box” devices that tricked phone-company computers
into giving free, long-distance calls. Later, Gigney said, Jobs would
say: “When Woz and I invented the blue box.”

Woziak was the prime
inventor of many Apple innovations. Jobs also had tech smarts, but he
added something more. “He was like a generation's storyteller,”
Gibney said.

Others worked with
machines; Jobs told how they were part of a changing world. He
sometimes offered a version of a quote from Polaroid founder Edwin
Land, that photography is “the intersection of art and science.”
This is the sort of intersection that Jobs inhabited.

As a teen, he had
two main friends – Wozniak, the techie, and Crissann Brennan, an
artist. “She was the one who continued trying to become
enlightened,” Gibney said.

They would split
(and battle over child support), but Jobs continued to thrive on both
art and science. The iMac, Gibney said, was “just an old machine
that they put a beautiful package on.”

Jobs pushed its
image (and his own) powerfully. “He was a rock star,” Gibney
said,

And he maneuvered
workers, Belleville said, in a chaotic workplace. “He's seducing
you, he's villifying you, he's ignoring you.” And convincing you to
join him (at least temporarily) in changing the world.

-- “Steve Jobs:
The Man in the Machine,” 9 and 11 p.m. ET Sunday, CNN

-- Also, 9 and 11
p.m. ET on Saturday, Jan. 9