Thursday, March 06, 2008

Pirates of Silicon Valley (1999)

(Image from IMDB)

Pirates of Silicon Valley (1999)

This TNT TV movie chronicles the professional (and to an extent, personal) lives of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates as they make their mark on the computer industry during the 70s and 80s through their companies, Apple and Microsoft respectively. Jobs is played by Noah Wyle, and Gates by Anthony Michael Hall. Also featured prominently are Apple co founder Steve Wozniak (Joey Slotnick) and Microsoft bigwigs Paul Allen (Josh Hopkins) and Steve Ballmer (John Di Maggio). There's definitely a greater focus on Jobs and Apple; during the time periods depicted Apple was by far the more successful and influential of the two companies, beginning with their development of the Apple II that sparked a revolution in home computers and followed by the development of the Macintosh. Gates meanwhile worked on developing operating systems for other company's hardware but was constantly threatened by Apple's successes and innovations.

The film shows both men to be driven, demanding, obsessive, manipulative and generally quite brilliant. Neither of them was a true technical genius; they were tech savvy enough to see potential in the industry and had the acumen to force themselves into the picture and usurp the seemingly omnipotent big boys like IBM. Ultimately they were both revolutionary in their own way - Jobs fused technological innovations with design and pushed them through with good salesmanship while consciously eschewing the stuffy corporate culture of existing tech companies. Gates mastered the art of taking other people's ideas and software, retooling them and making them available to the masses (and ultimately locking the masses into his software) - though, only the beginning of Microsoft's era of dominance is shown here. The film is bookended by a scene that establishes Apple as an also-ran and Gates' company as the 'big brother' like behemoth that IBM was before them. Of course, since the film was made in 99 the image of Gates looming over Jobs on a big screen is today a tad innaccurate - the filmmakers could not have foreseen the rise of the iMac, the iPod, and now the iPhone and the rebirth of Apple as a company whose products are the epitome of cutting edge, functional and stylish technology.

This definitely looks like a TV movie. Ignoring its modest cinematic aspirations, it's fairly informative - it crams a lot in there, though given its modest runtime it also leaves a lot out. I think it succeeds in recreating the milieu of the 'garage based company' revolution full of nerdy tinkerers who were breaking down barriers and doing funky new things that the corporates just couldn't understand. There's a real sense of entrepreneurial spirit on display, and the technology is fairly well (and accurately) represented. The spirit of the people involved, from their geeky love of technology to their non conformist etiquette, is genuine. The personalities of Jobs and Gates is true to what is known about them.

The major problem with the film is that it often feels like a dramatized documentary instead of an actual film, only it isn't in depth enough to pass as a documentary either. It's sort of like a biopic, and the nature of a biopic is that there is no traditional narrative, with the story essentially being composed of the significant events in the subjects' lives. But here it's spread out between many people and companies, and there is no genuine depth to the 'characters', a characteristic that is required of a good biopic. The elements of the story relating to Gates and Jobs' personal lives are both insufficient and excessive at the same time. They are not enough for the two characters to be fleshed out and three dimensional, but they are also so unrelated to the rest of the film that they come across as incongruous and unnecessary. A full on in-depth dramatization of the companies' corporate histories without the tangential personal stuff would probably have been more consistent and interesting. It has to be said that the performances are quite good across the board, with Wyle and Hall doing a pretty good job of mimicking Jobs and Gates - I'd give Hall the edge though.

'Pirates of Silicon Valley' is an interesting film, and one that really brings to life a (summarized) history of the birth of the PC era from the perspectives of two of its most influential personalities. It is very informative and despite it generally being more a dramatization of key events than a conventional movie, it is still fairly entertaining. My own interest in the subject matter may bias me towards enjoying what it has to offer however; the average viewer may walk away feeling a little informed but probably won't be as enthused by what they see as I was. I would recommend it only to those with an interest in the computer industry, as its strength as a film in its own right are questionable.

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