Early on in Pirates of Silicon Valley, soon-to-be-Apple Computer mogul Steve Jobs says: ”I figured it all out, and y’know what it’s all about? It’s about power.” Since Jobs is played by Noah Wyle — ER‘s moist-eyed Dr. Carter — this is a bit like hearing Machiavellian philosophy from a golden retriever puppy. Ruthless hubris never sounded so damply benign. But then, this story of the epic battle of the nerds waged between Apple’s Jobs and Microsoft’s Bill Gates was bound to be full of quixotic, contradictory moments like this. A TV movie written by first-time director Martyn Burke, Pirates of Silicon Valley tells the tale of social misfits who changed the lives of the rest of us groovy, socialized sheep. Without Jobs and Gates, I wouldn’t be tapping out this review on a laptop keypad, and you wouldn’t be spending afternoons bidding on Rocky and Bullwinkle salt and pepper shakers on eBay, or whatever it is you do with the power that Jobs and Gates have placed at our fingertips.
What Pirates actually tells is the story of four people, or two partnerships: Apple Computer cofounders Jobs and Steve Wozniak (Joey Slotnick) and Gates and Steve Ballmer (John DiMaggio), who is portrayed as Gates’ closest confidant. Wozniak and Ballmer each serve this story as voice-over narrators, chronicling the late-’70s competition and offering their best guesses as to what — beyond computer-language programming — was going on in their genius pals’ minds.
This makes for unwieldy drama. Sometimes the subplot of Wozniak’s increasing dislike for Jobs’ humorlessness and arrogance looks as if it will take center stage, but then Wozniak disappears for many scenes. Ballmer starts out a jovial fellow who relishes arguing the technical and moral aspects of Gates’ philosophy, but ends up a sobersided cipher. Why? Director Burke does not let on.
What I don’t know about computers and the lives of their creators would fill a roomy hard drive, so I’m sure I’m missing many of the dramatic liberties that have been taken in this telling of Apple versus Microsoft. But as a TV watcher, I can say that the filmmakers slanted the story in Jobs’ favor the instant Wyle was cast in the role. WASP handsome and rarely dropping his little-boy grin, so familiar to us in his ER scrubs, Wyle’s Jobs has it all over Anthony Michael Hall’s Gates, sympathy-wise.
Hall, part of the majority percentage of the Brat Packers who never did transcend brattiness, plays Gates as a smirking obsessive; he turns the script’s depictions of Gates’ intense competitiveness into a succession of ugly tantrums. While there is little swashbuckling done in Pirates — all the action takes place inside the competitors’ teeming brains — there are moments when Hall over-emotes Gates’ ambition to the point where you expect him to rub his hands, twirl an imaginary mustache, and cackle.
Ultimately, I think Burke’s script misses the bigger dramatic point by merely adhering to facts gathered by what he describes in the press notes as ”a team of Harvard researchers” (all the Yalies were presumably vetting HBO projects). What’s far more interesting is that for Jobs, the corporate symbol of a multicolored, bitten-into apple depicted his belief that computer research and development lost its innocence with the invention of the personal computer. Contantly puffing himself up as ”an artist” and ”a poet,” Jobs lapsed into self-delusion at precisely the point when Gates kept his capitalist cool wits about him.
That Gates ultimately proves the mightier pirate — we watch him vanquish Jobs by co-opting Apple innovations and folding them into Microsoft software — isn’t exactly the stuff of suspenseful narrative. Pirates of Silicon Valley is engrossing precisely to the extent that each of us finds computer innovation engrossing, but no more than that. It tries to put human faces on sophisticated operating systems, but the faces are poker ones (Gates is, in fact, shown to have been a particularly adept cardsharp in his college years). Pirates might have fared better as satire, the way screen adapter Larry Gelbart approached the takeover saga Barbarians at the Gate six years ago; instead, we have a moderately entertaining story whose emotional veracity is about as reliable as that chat-room correspondent who’s telling you she’s a knockout redhead with a Mensa IQ and can’t wait to meet you in real life. Sure, believe that, and I’ve got some shares in Tucker.com you might want to buy… C+