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`PIRATES OF SILICON VALLEY' PROBES JOBS-GATES RIVALRY.

Byline: David Bloom Staff Writer

In the opening frames of Turner Network Television's excellent new film, ``Pirates of Silicon Valley,'' we see Steve Jobs in full charisma mode, staring straight through the camera, and hear his rap tap-tapping off the screen at 100 miles per hour.

``I don't want you to think of this as just another film,'' says Jobs (played with terrific charisma and arrogance by Noah Wyle). ``We're rewriting human history.''

The film he's talking about isn't ``Pirates,'' and he isn't talking to the TNT audience (he's talking to Ridley Scott, the director of one of the most famous TV ads of all time, Apple Computer's ``Big Brother'' spot).

But to some minor extent he could be talking to us about this film, because the movie is probably the best, most entertaining TV take on the world of business since HBO's ``Barbarians at the Gate.''

And ``Pirates'' is about how two famously public men and their equally brilliant college buddies rewrote human history, creating the personal computer and the software that makes it go - and helping turn the world's economy, culture and sense of itself upside down.

So maybe this isn't just a nice way to spend a Sunday evening in front of the television (which, incidentally, fewer and fewer of us are doing, thanks to the personal computer and the Internet).

The ``Big Brother'' commercial that inspired Jobs' opening rant ran only once, during the 1984 Super Bowl, to announce the creation of a new kind of computer, Apple's Macintosh. The splash made by the ad, and by the Mac, represents a high point in Apple's - and Jobs' - dizzyingly up-and-down life in the computer business.

From there, this brisk and engaging tale jumps back to the early 1970s, when Jobs and buddy Steve Wozniak were still at the University of California, Berkeley, dodging anti-war protests and playing with little blue boxes that let them steal free long-distance phone service.

Across the country in Cambridge, Mass., Bill Gates (played with a glittering-eyed reptilian ooze by Anthony Michael Hall), Paul Allen (Josh Hopkins) and Steve Ballmer (John Dimaggio) were at Harvard University, playing poker, boozing in strip joints and ogling the latest centerfold in both Playboy and Popular Mechanics.

While Jobs and Woz were cobbling together the Apple II in a Silicon Valley garage, Gates and Allen were writing BASIC, the computer language that ran early computers.

Soon enough, Gates and Jobs would meet, and soon enough, the Machiavellian Gates would manipulate a hubris-filled Jobs to give him access to the Macintosh, which Gates would blatantly copy in his own company's Windows operating system for competing IBM-compatible computers.

That helped create the world's greatest fortune (somewhere around $50 billion for Gates, depending on the stock market's fluctuations) and one of its greatest falls from grace (and modest return from it by Apple and Jobs).

The film ends at the junction where Windows is introduced. There is a quick flash forward to Jobs on a stage at the 1997 Macworld Expo, telling the dumbstruck Apple faithful that ``the era of competition (with Microsoft) is over.''

With Gates looking down from a giant video screen behind him, Jobs has surrendered (though the $150 million Microsoft investment that, at that time, helped save Apple, which is once again profitable and hip after several bad years).

To push this double-tracked tale of boy-genius double-cross along quickly, writer/director Martyn Burke relies on voice-overs from the Woz (Joey Slotnick) and from Ballmer (now Microsoft's notoriously hard-charging president, in the film a jocular frat boy).

Their voices give the story perspective, and a sense of personality that a tale of the business rise of two ubergeeks might otherwise have lacked. It also helps that Burke has mostly avoided the tech talk that might have bogged it down.

There's even some canny use of special effects (no doubt done on a hopped-up personal computer) that in one case allows Ballmer to explain why a pivotal meeting between Gates and then-almighty IBM remains so important, not just to Microsoft but to us all.

But most importantly, Burke tries to give us some sense of Gates and Jobs, sketching in some of the dirt that makes them interesting: Jobs taking LSD, searching for his birth mother and repudiating his own illegitimate child; Gates fumbling pickup lines, racing bulldozers and spending the night in jail.

But make no mistake: These ubergeeks aren't like you and me. They are high-energy, high-intensity humans, their brains and moxie spinning at a higher clock speed than most of us. They did help rewrite history but demanded huge sacrifices of many around them, while creating fortunes that would have stunned Croesus.

Maybe rewriting history is expensive. But watching them do it in ``Pirates'' is worth it.

THE FACTS

The show: ``Pirates of Silicon Valley.''

What: A terrifically engaging double biopic about the rise of Apple Computer's Steve Jobs and Microsoft Corp.'s Bill Gates, and the personal computer revolution they helped lead.

The stars: Noah Wyle, Anthony Michael Hall, Joey Slotnick, John Dimaggio, Josh Hopkins. Written and directed by Martyn Burke.

Where: TNT.

When: 8 p.m. Sunday.

Our rating: Three and one half stars.

CAPTION(S):

Photo

Photo: Noah Wyle is Apple Computer co-founder Steve Jobs in ``Pirates of Silicon Valley.''
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Title Annotation:L.A. LIFE
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Article Type:Television Program Review
Date:Jun 16, 1999
Words:878
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