Alex Gibney is arguably the hardest-working man in documentaries. Ten years after his Oscar-nominated breakout, “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room,” and eight years after his Oscar-winning “Taxi to the Dark Side,” the 61-year-old filmmaker continues to crank out one hard-hitting documentary after another. In the past five years alone, he has made films about disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, former New York governor Elliot Spitzer, post-Beat writer Ken Kesey, WikiLeaks whistleblower Julian Assange, cyclist Lance Armstrong, musician Fela Kuti and Scientology.
Gibney’s latest film, “Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine,” takes a look at the complex, contradictory co-founder of Apple, who already has been the subject of one recent biopic (“Jobs”) and who will be the subject of another this fall (“Steve Jobs”). We caught up with Gibney by phone to discuss the film’s prismatic portrait of a brilliant and cruel — at times even ruthless — man, and our endless fascination with him.
The film begins with the death of Steve Jobs. In your narration, you describe yourself as mystified by the outpouring of grief by people around the world who didn’t know him.
Part of the interesting answer to the mystery, I discovered, was that it’s about Steve Jobs, but it’s also about us. What made so many people so upset when Steve Jobs died was that he was a kind of combination of daddy — in this relationship between the machine and ourselves — and also he was our guide. He was the one who led us to look into the mirror. He created these devices that became extensions of ourselves. Suddenly, he wasn’t going to hold our hand as we went from product to product, which became increasingly about who we were.
As sociologist Sherry Turkle puts it in the film, Apple’s devices aren’t for you, they are you. It sounds almost religious.
I think Steve very self-consciously — whether he would have phrased it exactly that way, I don’t know — but he very self-consciously created for himself a character that represented the company and all that other stuff. It did verge on the religious, the cultlike. The thing I think of most of all, when I think of that, is Oz.
When Dorothy and her troupe come in and they first see that giant, gaseous form: “I am the great and powerful Oz,” right? The presentation of Oz was a lot like the way Steve would present iPhones and iPads and iPods at those incredible product presentations. He very much sensed his role as this character that people would want to follow. He was the grand vizier who would tell you what the future would bring.
As with Mike Daisey’s performance piece “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” your film is likely to bump up against the cognitive dissonance some people experience about Apple products. Because they love them, they’re reluctant to think about some of the unsavory aspects of how they’re made, or the unpleasant behavior of the guy who made them.
I’ve gotten that a lot from Apple people. It’s like, “Who cares about all that stuff? Do you like your iPhone or not?”
Are we better off knowing that Steve Jobs could be a jerk?We’re better off. As the power of governments wanes, corporations become ever more powerful. Sometimes they do things that aren’t so good. We should pay attention. Steve Jobs was saying, “Don’t pay attention to all that stuff. Pay attention to the product you’ve got in your hand.”
What about the argument that you have to be ruthless to be a successful businessman?
I disagree with that. I think sometimes you have to make tough decisions. Look at Steve Jobs, who went out of his way to encourage the police to knock down the door of a journalist, just because he ended up with an unreleased iPhone prototype. It was unnecessary cruelty. He methodically parks in handicapped spaces. And then when his most loyal people get ensnared in the  stock options backdating scheme — part of which was designed to enrich him — he throws them under the bus.
Give me an example of a successful businessman who is also a humanitarian.
Look at Bill Gates. He’s eradicating disease.
Long after he left Microsoft.
Understood. It’s a mistake to say, “Well, aren’t there other nasty people who are CEOs of companies?” Yeah, they’re probably are. I think one of things that Steve Jobs, in his own funny way, encouraged us to remember with those “Think different” posters of Gandhi and Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King was, “How do you make the world a better place?”
Weren’t those posters really ads?
Steve was a marketing guy. Part of my interest in this film, too, was to examine the generation of people who went through the counterculture and who are now running companies and how they embrace certain values but jettisoned others of the counterculture.
Your résumé is both prolific and varied. Yet none of your films feels slapdash.
I think that’s key. They’re not produced on an assembly line. But because they take a long time, in a way, I do more than one at a time. They take a rather long, meandering path to final release.
Your 2013 film “The Armstrong Lie” began as a celebration of Lance Armstrong’s Tour de France comeback but then turned into a completely different movie about the doping scandal.
Right, that was five years. A lot of my films end up that way. When I started the WikiLeaks film, it was a film entirely about Julian Assange, and along the way I discovered it was really about [convicted spy] Chelsea Manning.
What motivates you?
I’m interested in looking at big stories or sometimes at powerful people, and maybe taking a second look at stuff that people may have missed.
What did the Ashton Kutcher “Jobs” movie miss?
Ashton Kutcher certainly looked like Steve Jobs. The problem is there are events that are portrayed in the Steve Jobs story that come up over and over and over again. I go through some of them, just as [Jobs biographer] Walter Isaacson and the folks in the Kutcher movie did, and undoubtedly as the upcoming Aaron Sorkin-Danny Boyle film [“Steve Jobs”] will do. But what do you make of those events? Where do they take you? It’s not about what’s new. It’s about “What haven’t we understood about what we know?”
There’s a clip in your film of a little kid raving about Steve Jobs. It looks like it’s from YouTube.
Isn’t he awesome? A lot of those things were posted on the Internet. We ultimately got in touch with him and got permission to use it. That kid is fantastic: Steve Jobs “made everything!”
As if Steve Jobs were Santa Claus.
That was his genius. It was like Steve Jobs is handing you this device. It was like, “Dude, do I have something for you!” That feels a lot better than having IBM ship it out to you in a brown container. It’s storytelling. It’s fiction-making.
But also a tiny bit about the product?
The product is good. He couldn’t do it if the product sucked. The iPod was genius. A music player wasn’t Steve Jobs’s idea, but the way he rendered it was brilliant. It was 1,000 songs in your pocket. Okay, I get it. It’s about me.
You describe Steve Jobs as a corporate father figure, a guide, a visionary, a huckster, a genius and a jerk. What was he at heart?
A storyteller. That’s what his genius was — telling us all a story. His artistry was in telling the kind of story that we would believe, telling us a story to make us want something.
Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine (R, 127 minutes). At the E Street Cinema.