Review: "Pirates of Silicon Valley"

The good news for Mac fans in the TV movie “Pirates of Silicon Valley” is that Bill Gates comes across as a shifty con-man with questionable morals who lies, cheats, and steals to get his way.

The bad news is that Steve Jobs doesn’t come across much better.

Premiering Sunday, June 20, at 8 p.m. on cable network TNT and repeating seven more times between then and June 27, “Pirates” has been marketed as a story about Jobs and Gates, the two geniuses who created the multi-billion-dollar computer industry. But in truth, it’s really much more about Jobs than Gates. Jobs gets the bulk of the screen time, no doubt in part because he’s played by Noah Wyle, “ER’s” Dr. Carter, while Gates is played by brat pack has-been Anthony Michael Hall.

Oddly enough, the central character in “Pirates of Silicon Valley” is neither Jobs nor Gates, but Steve Wozniak, played by Joey Slotnick of “The Single Guy.” Bearded and wearing one of Wozniak’s trademark Hawaiian shirts, Slotnick acts as the film’s main narrator. He’s an affable guy who witnessed the war without really getting wounded along the way.

That’s not the case with the rest of our players. First there’s a brief opening where Jobs attends the filming of Apple’s “1984” commercial, followed by a flash-forward to the Macworld Expo announcement of the Apple-Microsoft alliance, not so cleverly comparing Bill Gates’ appearance on the big projection screen to the image of Big Brother in Ridley Scott’s famous commercial.

From there, we dive into the deep past, to the founding of both companies. At Harvard, Gates and his buddies Paul Allen (Josh Hopkins) and Steve Ballmer (John DiMaggio) lounge around in a dorm room, with the prematurely balding hipster Ballmer chiding Gates about his well-worn stack of Playboy magazines and suggests he come to a strip club instead. Gates and Allen, with some guidance in the ways of business from Ballmer, manage to move to Albuquerque and found Microsoft.

Meanwhile, ex-hippie Jobs has decided to act as the front man for Wozniak, who has created a personal computer all by himself. Mustering up all his counterculture fervor, he sells the new Apple computer as a device that will change the world.

This is where the film’s two most bizarre scenes occur, as Gates takes a joyride on a tractor in Albuquerque while Jobs takes LSD and pretends to conduct an orchestra in a psychedelic countryside. It’s just one of many places where the movie makes some clear comparisons between Gates and Jobs: Jobs has a drug trip that brings out his creativity; Gates acts like a fratboy and rams a borrowed car with a pilfered backhoe.

Mac users will be pleased by the film’s general slant: Gates is a geek with no conscience and no creativity who succeeds through theft and bullying; Jobs is a creative visionary who changes the world but allows all the profits to go Gates. It’s quite bittersweet to watch Jobs’ pride in the Macintosh contrasted with the film’s ending, which rightly points out that Gates is now the richest man in the world (and that Microsoft now owns a stake in Apple).

But fans of Jobs will not be pleased by the way he’s portrayed, either. Wyle, likeable as Carter on “ER,” comes across as a self-centered genius who could easily be handing out pitchers of almond Kool-Aid to a group of loyal mumu-clad followers if his life had gone down a slightly different path.

His girlfriend announces her pregnancy, and he immediately cuts off contact with her, declaring that the child “isn’t his”—even though he drives to an Oregon commune to talk the mother out of naming her something like America or Freedom. He berates his loyal employees, shouting at programmers for falling asleep after 50 straight hours on the job. He arrives in a job interview wearing sandals, and proceeds to destroy the job applicant in front of an aghast human resources executive. And during an Apple beach retreat to celebrate the Macintosh, he stands like a God high above his employees, throwing frisbees down for them to play with.

Fans of the computer industry will enjoy a lot of “Pirates,” since the film takes pains to recreate several famous events, including Gates being arrested for speeding; Gates, Allen, and Ballmer lying to IBM that they owned DOS and then swindling it out of a Seattle company for a paltry $50,000; John Sculley being forced to give a toast at Jobs’ birthday party because nobody else is willing to, then firing him a few months later.

But while those sort of industry yarns are amusing, they’re the sort of thing you can get—in much more detail—by watching a documentary, like PBS’ “Triumph of the Nerds.” As a movie, “Pirates of Silicon Valley” falters because it doesn’t have much connective tissue. Too often, it seems that writer/director Martyn Burke is jumping from famous anecdote to famous anecdote with little concern about the main characters themselves. The movie clearly wants to be about the enigmatic and brilliant Steve Jobs, yet it almost never opts to spend time with that character when it can instead show us another wacky computer industry legend.

In an interview, Burke boasted that he has “two or more sources that verify each scene” in the movie, which points out “Pirates’” greatest failing. Instead of being a fascinating portrayal of what made these men tick and what brought them to the top of their field—and, oh boy, there’s certainly enough psychological material to make a whole miniseries about either of these two guys—“Pirates” is content to slide from wild story to wild story.

Still, though most Mac fans will wince at Jobs’ boorish attitude, they’ll find many things to appreciate in “Pirates,” from Wozniak’s warm, fuzzy demeanor, excellently carried off by Slotnick, to the portrayal of Gates as a geeky rip-off artist. Anyone who has seen Microsoft’s Ballmer on television will appreciate the performance of DiMaggio, who voices Bender the robot on Fox’s animated “Futurama.” DiMaggio does a dead-on impression of the obnoxious and bombastic Ballmer.

Those who haven’t seen Ballmer will think DiMaggio’s portrayal is ridiculously exaggerated, but sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. That’s a point “Pirates of Silicon Valley” makes all too clear.

[“Pirates of Silicon Valley.” Starring Noah Wyle, Anthony Michael Hall, Joey Slotnick, John DiMaggio, Josh Hopkins, and Bodhi Pine Elfman. Written and Directed by Martyn Burke. Airs June 20-June 27 on TNT.]

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