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Review: Pirates of Silicon Valley (1999)

Pirates of Silicon Valley (1999)

Directed by: Martyn Burke

Premise: A dramatization of the rise of Microsoft and Apple, focusing on the relationship between Steve Jobs (Noah Wyle) and Bill Gates (Anthony Michael Hall).

What Works: There have been several films about the life and work of Steve Jobs and the formation of Apple. However, a lot of these films have downplayed or omitted the relationship between Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. Pirates of Silicon Valley takes on that relationship directly and the result is a smart and engaging business drama. The filmmakers set themselves up with a challenge in that the material is inherently dry; the facts of the case are to do with hardware, software, and intellectual property rights and yet this movie is completely engaging. The filmmakers utilize several smart storytelling choices. The first is to tell this story from the point of view of Steve Wozniak (Joey Slotnick). Wozniak is both an observer and a participant, playing a critical role in Apple from its garage days onward, and the story places him in most critical events without his presence appearing to be contrived. The movie also has a deep sense of its characters. Steve Jobs is the insurgent entrepreneur who perpetually views himself as the outsider and actor Noah Wyle does not shy from Jobs more malevolent traits. On the other hand, there is a vulnerability to this film’s portrayal of Jobs that is distinct from other cinematic incarnations. While Jobs is something of an idealist, Bill Gates is portrayed as the pragmatic type who was also ruthless, easing up next to his competition and posing as an ally and viewing other people and organizations as means to an end. That leads to another unique aspect of Pirates of Silicon Valley: the way it subverts the tech industry’s narrative about itself. The industry has appealed to the American belief in hard work and ingenuity and cast itself as the embodiment of the American Dream but as Pirates of Silicon Valley makes clear, that hard work and innovation was matched by shrewd business practices and a willingness to steal and deceive from each other. This is far from the altruistic image of the tech industry put out by its most popular voices. The other impressive aspect of Pirates of Silicon Valley is that it effectively dramatizes why Bill Gates and Steve Jobs and their companies were important. A lot of these movies tell the audience that their work changed the world but this film shows us what they did and how they did it.

What Doesn’t: Pirates of Silicon Valley was made for television by the cable network TNT which originally broadcast the film in 1999. The movie is very televisual in its style. Some of it has aged charmingly, such as the computer graphics that were cutting edge at the time, but the production values remain lodged in the parameters of a television production from the late 90s. The story of Pirates of Silicon Valley moves along at a clip but it stops short. The movie climaxes in the confrontation between Steve Jobs and Bill Gates when it is revealed that Microsoft copied Apple’s operating system (which Apple had copied from Xerox). The movie then speeds through Apple firing and rehiring Steve Jobs, the reconciliation between Jobs and his family, and then concludes with Microsoft owning a part of Apple. A lot of this is done through a montage accompanied by on-screen text. The first and last images of Pirates of Silicon Valley nicely bookend the film; it begins with Apple’s legendary “1984” commercial and ends with Gates and Jobs positioned as the new Big Brother. But a lot of interesting and critical events in the relationship between these men and their companies is omitted and at only ninety-five minutes Pirates of Silicon Valley could have gone on longer and dramatized the story more fully.
DVD extras: Introduction by Noah Wyle and trailers.

Bottom Line: Pirates of Silicon Valley is an impressive and entertaining biographical film. It is very obviously a television production but it is also smart, funny, and even a little subversive. It will be of interest to those have an interest in technology and to fans of the HBO series Silicon Valley.

Episode: #567 (November 1, 2015)