"Pirates of Silicon Valley" is a movie about two boys and their toys. The toys would change the world, but the boys, alas, are bores. And "Pirates" is not so much a movie as a collection of scenes tossed together willy-nillily.
The film, premiering on the TNT cable channel tonight at 8, stars Noah Wyle of "ER" as computer pioneer Steve Jobs and Anthony Michael Hall as his archenemy Bill Gates, the Microsoft monarch who is now richer than maybe even Jed Clampett's wildest dreams.
Since Jobs is portrayed by the far more attractive and accomplished actor of the two, and since he gets the larger share of screen time, especially in the first half of the two-hour picture, he would appear to be the hero. His competitor seems a sniveling geek from the get-go, and the way Hall plays him, the fellow at times comes off more like Norman Bates than Bill Gates. You may half expect him to produce a collection of stuffed birds or discover a mummified mommy in his fruit cellar.
But once Jobs gets rich, he starts behaving with slimy swinishness, too, terrorizing and humiliating employees, wallowing in his own imagined grandeur and brushing aside an earnest young woman who claims, correctly, to be carrying his child. What causes the personality switcheroo? It's not made clear. Maybe it's the hokey and wholly gratuitous acid trip Jobs takes about a quarter of the way into the film. The world goes all googledy-boogledy and he spins around on the floor, which he thinks is a field of grass.
Perhaps writer-director Martyn Burke is trying to say that behind the momentousness of the computer revolution were two very flawed nerds who depended not so much on their own genius as on the stupidity of others--executives at IBM and Xerox, for instance, who are depicted as incredibly short-sighted stuffed shirts. A moron at Hewlett-Packard scoffs, "What on earth would ordinary people want with computers?" Well, wouldn't he find out!
It's hard to root for either Jobs or Gates as a brash young upstart, however, since they're both so incredibly rude and annoying and both are quite capable of stealing ideas from whoever is convenient at the time. Maybe Burke thought he was doing the "Barbarians at the Gate" of computerdom; "Barbarians" was HBO's (and Larry Gelbart's) snappy satire about high crimes and miffed demeanors in corporate politics.
But Burke doesn't ever really sharpen a satirical edge, and his way of compensating for that is to have several of the actors give performances that are ludicrously over the top, cornier than the histrionics in many an old silent movie. There's not much substance, so Burke overdoes style. He uses tricks and gimmicks and rock tunes to spice up what is, finally, a tiresome and oddly trivial little tale.
The film opens with what somebody apparently considers one of the pivotal events of our time, Apple's wackily overdone "1984" commercial made for the '84 Super Bowl. "We're here to make a dent in the universe," Jobs declares during production of the ad. "Otherwise, why even be here?" By "here," does he mean the set for the commercial or here on the planet Earth? Well, whatever.
Then, naturally, we are teleported into flashbacks, narrated alternately by Jobs's buddy Steve Wozniak (Joey Slotnik), who's even duller than Jobs is, and Gates's pal Steve Ballmer (John DiMaggio), who's duller than the fourth of February. One thing that makes the film dry and dreary, for all the pyrotechnics, is the virtual absence of major speaking parts for women. It's boys and toys (though certainly no boy-toys), all right, with few if any girls invited to the party.
It's 1971 and Burke kills time with an irrelevant but action-packed student riot at Berkeley, where Jobs is a student. His friend "Captain Crunch" develops the once notorious "blue box" with which cash-poor students circumvented AT&T's long-distance charges. "Information is power," Jobs proclaims ominously, while at Harvard, Bill Gates is playing poker. But very methodically.
Apple is founded in a garage, and Jobs shaves off first his bushy beard and then his dapper mustache so he'll look more acceptable to bankers when he applies for loans. Is the film saying that Jobs and Gates were once idealistic visionaries who were corrupted by competitive capitalism when the stakes became enormous? If it is, it's saying it inarticulately.
All kinds of diversionary scenes are thrown in to try to give the story action and sizzle: a scene at a strip bar (minus bare breasts, of course, since this is basic cable), a bizarre midnight bulldozer race between Gates and a colleague, and many a Jobsian temper tantrum. In a bizarre encounter with a man seeking employment, Jobs demands to know if the guy is "a virgin" and then insults him before stomping off in a huff and a half.
Jobs is nothing if not repetitious. "I need artists!" he screams in regard to his pixilated personnel practices, denouncing employees who are "clock-punching losers." Later, at a meeting, Jobs tells co-workers, "We have to think of ourselves as artists." Mano a mano with the visiting Gates, Jobs tells him, "We're artists here." And later, when Apple itself is split asunder by competing factions, Jobs says, "We, you, the Macintosh team are the only true artists."
All right already, so you think you're an artist! We get the point. Such as it is.
Eventually the story comes full circle, Gates triumphs while Jobs seethes, and we're back to that epochal moment in human history, the big, expensive TV commercial. The irony is that many of the scenes in "Pirates" play like commercials themselves. They're very short, simplistic and pay off in cutesy punch lines. More and more, movies on TV and even in theaters are becoming this kind of modular melange of elements rather than solid, well-constructed narratives with some point or statement to make.
TNT calls itself "the best movie studio on television." First of all, it isn't a studio and second of all, some of its movies aren't even really movies and third of all, it's hardly the best of anything.
Closing credits tell us that Gates is now the world's richest man, that Jobs now has been absorbed by the Gates empire, and that Wozniak, who dresses dorkily no matter how rich he gets, now helps kiddies and "funds a ballet." He funds a ballet, huh? Which one--"Swan Lake," retroactively? Or could they mean that he funds a ballet company? It's one more tiny sloppy touch.
Probably the most intriguing and significant component of the computer age will turn out to be the Internet, but that's not even touched on here. The movie is soft on hardware and hard on both its alleged heroes. Finally, their squabbling and squawking and stealing of ideas seems to matter precious little, and "Pirates" makes both geniuses seem peripheral to their own revolution, as well as to all of our lives--which we will now get on with.
CAPTION: Noah Wyle as Apple Computer whiz Steve Jobs: Rush him back to "ER."
CAPTION: Anthony Michael Hall: Coming off more like Norman Bates than Microsoft's Bill Gates.
CAPTION: The real Steve Jobs, left, and Bill Gates: Talking turkey?
CAPTION: Wyle, left, and Hall as Jobs and Gates: Two flawed nerds whose success seems to depend not so much on their own genius as on the stupidity of others.