Pretend you've never seen a firecracker, and someone hands a lit one to you. Could you really be faulted for holding it in your hand, watching the fuse burn down, not anticipating the explosion that would follow? That was the personal computer revolution. After years of
useless home computers – boxes that flashed lights, required you to write your own programs, and couldn't store information permanently – the Apple II and IBM-PC revolutionized the consumer world. Not with bigger or better machines, but with relevant applications and ease of use. Before that, the only people who really needed computers or could even make them do anything worthwhile were scientists and the government. And they certainly weren't going to waste time with the laughably underpowered toys being built in people's garages. So when Pirates of Silicon Valley repeatedly mocks Big Business for not seeing the explosion coming – and it does, again and again, with Hewlett-Packard, Xerox, and others – one wonders what the HP executive should have said when shown Steve Wozniak's first Apple computer, built in a wood case and barely functional.
It's the little things like this that sort of bother me when watching TNT's 1999 made-for-TV movie. Pirates not only has the benefit of hindsight in telling the story of Steve Jobs' and Bill Gates' rise to power, it also attempts to give that story an overarching theme. In real life, that theme might be, "With hard work, determination, and the instincts to take advantage of opportunities that drop in your lap, you can be successful." Here, I have no idea. "Ruthlessness trumps idealism?" "There's more to life than money?" I don't know, and neither does the film.
If the theme is muddled, it's probably because writer and director Martyn Burke bites off more than he can chew. Trying to depict 15 years of
one person's life in 90 minutes is hard enough, but trying to tell two parallel, rarely-intersecting stories is just asking for trouble, and the film suffers as a result. The movie consists of a series of anecdotes narrated by Steve Wozniak (Joey Slotnick, "Boston Public") and Steve Ballmer (John Di Maggio, "Futurama") showing the various people involved acting out scenes from Silicon Valley legend. Unfortunately, except for Steve Jobs (Noah Wyle, "ER"), none of the characters get enough screen time to establish anything other than one or two broad character traits each. Bill Gates, despite a fun performance by Anthony Michael Hall ("The Dead Zone"), doesn't get much development beyond going from nerd to creepy nerd. Woz is only ever a good guy who just likes computers. Ballmer is a loudmouthed moron. And Paul Allen (Josh Hopkins, "Ally McBeal") doesn't even get a personality.
Jobs alone gets time for a subplot, concerning his illegitimate daughter Lisa, between his screaming and existential platitudes. He is a walking contradiction; not surprisingly, he is the most interesting character in the film. Jobs was adopted as a child, but refuses to acknowledge his daughter even after a paternity test, though he insists on naming her and naming a computer after her. He has a hatred of The Man, but sheds his jeans, beard, and long hair for expensive suits and Picassos. He built his company from scratch, but has no problem letting it fracture apart before his eyes. It's a shame that the film never delves more deeply into these quirks; instead, it's content to trot them out and then just move on.
The movie also fails to show just how similar Gates and Jobs really are. Although there are many differences between the two, the traits that made them successful are held in common: both inspired a culture of unswerving loyalty and long hours from employees (Gates, with
stock options; Jobs, with his cult of personality), both were prone to screaming tantrums and frequently belittled employees for not measuring up to unrealistic expectations, and both recognized a good thing when they saw it. Here, they only share the last one; the film gives the first two to Jobs.
In spite of these and other problems, however, Pirates of Silicon Valley still manages to be an amusing race through the early years of personal computing, because it never takes itself too seriously – one of the main things it gets absolutely right. There's no pretention here, and it makes its missteps easier to overlook. Geeks don't have a lot of films they can call their own, anyway, so it's not hard to see how Pirates has built up the cult fanbase that it has. Those looking for a history lesson should look elsewhere, but as an easily-digestible overview of the early days of personal computing, you could do worse.
The movie looks good (it should – it's only six years old). Black levels are right on, and there are no major flaws or defects with the 4:3 transfer. The film has a fun visual style - Ballmer's pulled out of one scene for an aside, and Wozniak walks around on the desktop of the Apple II for another.
The soundtrack isn't bad – the highlight being the film closer, Talking Heads' "Burning Down the House." Most of the songs are meant to set up when a scene is taking place or evoke the feeling of that era, which explains why there are three The Moody Blues songs in the mix.
There are English and Spanish stereo tracks and subtitles, as well.
The disc is basically bare-bones. There's a three-and-a-half minute introduction by Noah Wyle where he reveals that after the film Steve Jobs got in touch with him to impersonate him at the Macworld Convention that year. There's also a trailer for this DVD, along with a couple of other movies.
At the very least, material from the still-online promotional website could have been included on the disc. The site has a quiz, a timeline, and short interviews with Wyle, Hall, and Slotnick.
Despite all of the missed opportunities, Pirates of Silicon Valley is entertaining and surprisingly rewatchable, if you can look past its problems. Those wanting a more historically-accurate epic of the PC revolution should take a look at PBS's Triumph of the Nerds, but if you're in the mood for a little geeky nostalgia, this will do in a pinch. Rent it.