When Alex Gibney first spoke to me in the summer of 2012, less than a year after Steve Jobs’ death, about the idea of doing a documentary on him, I had doubts. There’d been a raft of books about Jobs already, including Walter Isaacson’s authorized and (literally) weighty cradle-to-grave biography. Two Hollywood treatments of Jobs were already in the works, one starring Ashton Kutcher, another from West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin.
What more was there to say?
Plenty, as Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine, the Gibney film being released September 4, makes clear.
I’d worked twice before with Alex, whose subjects have ranged from Sinatra to Scientology. He directed an Academy Award-nominated account of the Enron scandal, The Smartest Guys in the Room, based on the book I co-authored with Fortune colleague Bethany McLean. And we’d collaborated to chronicle the rise and fall of Eliot Spitzer, portrayed in his film and my book, both called Client 9.
Convinced of Alex’s ability to—dare I say it?—think different, I signed on as a part-time consultant, with the title of co-producer.
Gibney made no effort to chronicle Jobs’ entire life. Instead, he structured the film as a personal exploration, a quest to better understand this man and some weighty questions; why so many millions mourned (even wept!) over the death of a business titan they never met; how narrowly Jobs, as a powerful CEO, defined his responsibilities to society; and how his technology changed all of us. We come to understand how these intimate gadgets Apple (AAPL) created — that iPhone we cradle so lovingly — fostered a uniquely personal adoration for Jobs.
The film takes us to some unexpected places, including previously unseen video of Jobs’ spiritual guru harshly assessing Steve’s progress toward “enlightenment”—and Jobs venting, in an SEC deposition, about how Apple’s board left him feeling unappreciated.
Fortune’s experiences dealing with Jobs are covered too. A genius at controlling media access to him (he typically doled it out to familiar, favored tech writers at product-announcement time), Jobs reacted furiously in 2007 when Fortune managing editor Andy Serwer assigned a staffer with whom he’d had no previous dealings—namely, me—to write a deep, investigative profile. Jobs pulled out all the stops to kill the story—alternately pleading, threatening, and cajoling. Finally, he proposed a deal: if Fortune would pull the plug on my piece, he’d give the magazine two or three much better stories in return.
The story ran—promoted on Fortune’s cover.
As Serwer recounts on camera, this led the Apple CEO, in a private meeting, to express his profound disappointment and feeling of betrayal—as a tear rolled down his cheek.
There’s a bit of revisionism afoot about Steve Jobs these days, suggesting that he mellowed later in life, becoming a kinder, gentler CEO. This film is distinctly skeptical on that front, with Exhibit A being Jobs’ late-in-life bullying of tech site Gizmodo—which he later rationalized as a defense of corporate “values”—after the site procured and reported on a misplaced iPhone prototype.
As the film makes quite clear: Jobs created a company that made products that were insanely great. He also did things—and treated people—in ways that were simply insane. That remained the case until the end of his life.