The great Silicon Valley soap opera

Gates as a villain? Jobs an egomaniac? "Pirates of Silicon Valley" doesn't dig too deeply for insight, but it's fun.

Published June 17, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Repeat after me: Steve Jobs is an egotistical jerk with a romantic streak. Bill Gates is a maniacal, antisocial vulture. Repeat ad nauseam.

If you love to loathe Steve Jobs or Bill Gates -- and who doesn't? -- then "Pirates of Silicon Valley" is the movie for you. The much-trumpeted, fictionalized account of the rise (and fall, and rise again) of Microsoft and Apple Computer, airing Sunday on TNT, presents both the turtlenecked CEO and Mr. Bill as thieves and jerks with few redeeming features, so if by chance you're a devoted fan of either one, be prepared. Still -- though this flick won't win any Emmys -- if you're looking for an amusing, Hollywood-filtered dramatization of the rise of the geek industry, there are worse ways to spend your Sunday evening.

"Pirates of Silicon Valley" starts off in the late 1960s, when Gates, played by Anthony Michael Hall (a veteran nerd actor and an inspired casting choice), and Jobs, played by "ER" veteran Noah Wyle (who bears a striking resemblance to Jobs), are toiling away at their respective colleges. The movie tracks their parallel growth and growing enmity -- from garage to glass-covered campus, in the case of Apple, and from a grungy hotel room to immense wealth, in the case of Microsoft -- as Jobs builds his revolutionary empire and Gates, in turn, pilfers his genius.

Jobs is presented as the Ruthless Idealist, an ex-hippie who happily drops acid, visits ashrams, dances with Hare Krishnas and visualizes his computer as a way to take down The Man (read: IBM). His Fatal Flaw is a blinkered obsession with his "revolution" and a lack of interest in the lives of those who buy into (and are destroyed) by his vision -- not to mention a blindness to the evil incarnate in Microsoft. Wyle aptly captures Jobs' mannerisms -- the "elbows on podium, palms upturned" and "palms pressed together and pointed at audience" gestures familiar to journalists and Macworld attendees, and that much-reported tendency toward unfettered tantrums in the workplace.

Gates comes off even worse: He is the Maniacal Misfit. This is revealed through numerous scenes in which he sits hunched over a computer, with glowing code reflecting in his lenses and his eyes burning bloodshot and frenzied behind those hideous frames. (His pupils are so tiny that he appears to be on amphetamines for most of the movie.) But Gates, we learn, is basically a mercenary who'd rather make his fortune by plundering other people's programming genius (such as his purchase of DOS for $50,000 from an unsuspecting programmer) and selling it with a little smoke and mirrors to the highest bidder. He has no interest in women whatsoever (as the Steve Ballmer character tells him, "You're the only guy I know who pays strippers to put their clothes on"), and women have no interest in him -- not particularly surprising, considering Hall's (spot-on) squeaky voice and overly geekish behavior.

The main premise of "Pirates of Silicon Valley" -- and one that isn't, perhaps, far from the truth -- is that the great successes of both of these characters were actually innovations cribbed from those around them. Gates, we're told, not only connived to get DOS for a pittance, but copied Apple's graphical interface for Windows. Jobs, in turn, had pilfered that same interface and the mouse from Xerox PARC. Yet the movie also lauds them as a new strain of robber barons -- or "pirates," as the case may be -- that triumph because of their single-minded and grandiose visions of the future. Jobs comes off as the nobler character, but just barely, and only because, as he puts it, "We have culture. They don't."

But beyond this broad epiphany, neither Jobs nor Gates is really offered much depth of character. Gates seems to materialize out of nowhere at Harvard, and we are offered no clues about his background or personal life -- except the cute detail that his "dates" with Ann Winblad consist of the two going separately to see the same movie, in different cities, and chatting about it afterward on the phone. (Truth? Fiction? Regardless, it's amusing.) A sappy plot line gives Jobs a slightly more revealing treatment -- we're briefly witness to the anguish he feels about being adopted and his turmoil about rejecting his illegitimate daughter, Lisa (for whom his second computer is named).

Current Microsoft president Steve Ballmer and former Apple CEO John Scully also get short ends of the stick, coming across as an oaf and a traitor, respectively. The only character, in fact, who survives "Pirates of Silicon Valley" unscathed is Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak -- the primary narrator of the tale, sympathetically played by Joey Slotnick, whose puppy-dog eyes and awesome facial hair give him a lovable, albeit mawkish, "I'm doing this for the right reasons" appeal. Every tale needs some kind of good guy, and lucky for Woz, he seems to have been chosen as the Noble Character in this film.

Based on the out-of-print book "Fire in the Valley," "Pirates" is a relatively faithful history of the rise of these two companies, and it's worth watching if you're at all interested in the local lore of Silicon Valley. It's clear that director Martyn Burke did his homework, and he nicely captures little details such as the piano in the foyer of Apple's headquarters and the pirate flags flying in Apple offices during the creation of the Macintosh. And despite the stereotyped portrayals, Burke does capture the essence of Jobs' role as evangelist-cum-
marketer and Gates' as programmer-turned-businessman.

Those looking for an accurate depiction of Silicon Valley will be in for a disappointment, however -- after all, this is a movie, not a documentary, and what were probably relatively dry occasions have been built up (read: fictionalized) for as much drama as possible. There is some creative interpretation and condensing of facts and details. The boring side of Silicon Valley -- the endless coding, the absent social lives, the hideous suburban environment -- is excised altogether.

Instead, the film is heavily seasoned with revolutionary hoo-ha apparently intended to inform the viewer of just how important all this computer stuff really is -- and to contrast with the dimwitted ignorance of The Man (whom we meet at IBM, Hewlett-Packard and Xerox PARC) and the mercenary piracy (as opposed to Jobs' well-intended piracy) of Bill Gates. These Jobs-isms occur at the overwhelming rate of a monologue every few minutes, which may induce nausea in unwary viewers. An abbreviated handful:

"We're here to create a dent in the universe -- a new consciousness!" "They aren't revolutionaries, we are" (to Woz, dismissing Vietnam protesters in 1969). "It's art, science and religion, all rolled up into one." "This isn't just business. This is practically spiritual!"

Although the movie offers occasional glimpses of wit and humor -- a quick clip of IBM executives singing company anthems, for example -- it is, at its heart, a rather maudlin made-for-TV movie, complete with wincingly bad dialogue, cartoonish character representation and one particularly awful acid trip. In one painful scene, for example, Gates is mortified when he trips over a babe at a roller rink; he proceeds to dorkily stutter to her, "I bet you have great bandwidth." Ouch.

The movie abruptly ends just before Jobs is ousted from Apple by Scully -- which is disappointing, considering the future shenanigans that would take place between Microsoft and Apple. A series of stills tells us that Jobs would come back as CEO of Apple, that Microsoft would eventually own part of Apple, and that Gates is now the richest man in the world -- but doesn't go into the richly complex business dealings behind these events.

The impetus behind all these turnabouts, though, is foreshadowed in the movie's most poignantly insightful dialogue. Jobs, fresh from the launch of the Macintosh, is pitching a fit after realizing that Microsoft's new Windows software utilizes his stolen interface and ideas. As Gates retreats from Jobs' tantrum, Jobs screeches, "We have better stuff!"

Gates, turning, simply responds, "You don't get it. That doesn't matter."

In retrospect -- hundreds of millions of Windows-laden PCs and countless licensing deals later -- it's apparent that he was right. But, of course, the story still isn't over. And whatever turns it takes next, you can bet they will be fodder for another made-for-TV movie.

By Janelle Brown

Janelle Brown is a contributing writer for Salon.

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Apple Business Microsoft Steve Jobs