December 17, 2015

Pirates of Silicon Valley

A common criticism of the recent spat of Jobs biopics is that he is unfairly depicted as a nasty piece of work. Pirates of Silicon Valley is no exception. I can understand why: screenwriters and actors alike are drawn to the operatic drama of human conflict like rats to cheese.

But it gets awfully samey (sorry, Tolstoy). And at only 100 minutes long, watching Steve Jobs rant and rave (and Bill Gates drive a bulldozer) draws time and attention away from more interesting subjects.

I would have preferred less melodrama and more documentary. Though for that, there's always Robert Cringely's definitive account, Triumph of the Nerds. And more recently, Silicon Valley (the hardware side) and Something Ventured (the finance side).

In cinematic terms, Pirates of Silicon Valley looks like the made-for-TV movie it is. Even so, Noah Wyle as Steve Jobs, Joey Slotnick as Steve Wozniak, John DiMaggio as Steve Ballmer, and Anthony Michael Hall as Bill Gates handle the material quite well.

When playing off each other, Wyle and Hall do such a good job illustrating their wildly contrasting personalities that I wish they'd invented more scenes for them to be in together, out of whole cloth if necessary. Because the abstract moments in this movie are the best ones.

The narrative is occasionally interrupted by "interviews" with the main characters (the actors). In one scene, John DiMaggio as Steve Ballmer steps literally through the fourth wall to comment on the historical moment in which IBM allowed Microsoft to license DOS to anybody.

It was that agreement that would eventually hound IBM out of the PC business it created, not Apple.

DOS licensing begat Compaq and Dell and a thousand other makers of "beige box" IBM PC clones, which begat the Windows/Intel hardware standard, which was adopted by Linux and, ironies of ironies, even Apple. Which is why an iMac can dual-boot Windows.

Unfortunately, the rest of the movie doesn't follow the tone set by that scene. This docudrama about people thinking outside the box is pretty buttoned down. It needed more goofy moments illustrating creativity at play, rather than telling us how brilliantly eccentric everybody was.

Related posts

The accidental standard
The blind spot
Back to the digital future
Something Ventured

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