Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Television Review: PIRATES OF SILICON VALLEY (1999, Martyn Burke)

Stars: 4 of 5.
Running Time: 95 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: Noah Wyle (ER, A FEW GOOD MEN), Anthony Michael Hall (THE BREAKFAST CLUB, EDWARD SCISSORHANDS), Joey Slotnick (HOLLOW MAN, TWISTER), Josh Hopkins (THE PERFECT STORM, G.I. JANE).
Tag-line: "The true story of the battle to create the computer age."
Best one-liner: "Steve - it is Steve, right? You say this gadget of yours is for ordinary people. What on earth would ordinary people want with computers?"

I think that the time has come for us to celebrate PIRATES OF SILICON VALLEY as a 90's camp classic. Conversely, it is also time for us to celebrate it as a frequently entertaining, legitimately well-made biopic. If I were Armond White, here might be the proper time to write "PIRATES OF SILICON VALLEY > THE SOCIAL NETWORK."

The film itself is sort of like if Oliver Stone fused together WALL STREET and THE DOORS with the intent of airing it on TNT: it pops with grand visuals, contains a genuine degree of cultural resonance, meanders into drug trips and tangents, and occasionally adheres to a chowder-fingered, head-scratching TV-movie logic (that causes welcome spit-takes and a Slater-esque raising of eyebrow, at least in my household). The same movie that superbly depicts a power struggle between nearly Shakespearian techno-giants also contains a zany Bill Gates roller disco montage (more on that in a minute!), "Inna Gadda Da Vida" blasting during a trade show, and this proto-MATRIX font, back when 1's and 0's in and of themselves exuded technological mystique and movies like HACKERS were being released.

I would even go as far as to say that hindsight even lends it more meaning: made before the iPod/iPhone era, the film ends on a question mark, actively wondering if Steve Jobs is forever destined to be the underling of a new Big Brother-ish Bill Gates...

Furthermore, I admire a thesis which the film slyly introduces by way of Steve Jobs' Buddhism– is it possible that the corporate grappling between Jobs and Gates can be karmically traced back to a seemingly insignificant cold shoulder/blow off by Jobs at a random computer convention? Who knows for sure.

And before I delve into the zany stuff, I'd also like to praise the performances. Anthony Michael Hall (nerdy darling of John Hughes fame) plays Bill Gates as a sinister genius and a gauche, gawky nerd.

His appalling looks of sheer, sinister computer-luvin' concentration are well worth the price of admission alone.

Noah Wyle is asked to pull off quite a lot– and he succeeds! His hippie-to-hippie/yuppie-to-barefoot-executive portrayal of Jobs is alternatingly likable, manic, and monstrous.

It's reminiscent of some of my favorite biopics, where I can carefully trace a subject's motivations from A to B to C. Even if I find their actions reprehensible, I understand what makes them tick. Filmmakers like Paul Schrader (MISHIMA, RAGING BULL, PATTY HEARST, etc.) or Ken Russell (THE MUSIC LOVERS, SAVAGE MESSIAH, MAHLER) get to the heart of this matter, and not at the expense of style, either! That's not to say that anything in POSV approaches the artistic heights of those masters, but we certainly see glints of the style peeking through the cracks. So many of today's biopics are bland, visually uninspired, and too easily resigned to simply revolving around their 'inscrutable' subjects. It is of course much easier to present the 'indifferent gaze' than to try and unpack the whirling mass of neurons that resides behind it. So for all of its often silly shortcomings, PIRATES OF SILICON VALLEY has a fundamental grasp on storytelling, and is well-acted, to boot.

But what about the fun stuff– the means by which PIRATES OF SILICON VALLEY avoids stuffiness and simultaneously emerges as an artifact of late 90's campitude? Well, since you asked so nicely...

#1. Generic early 70's peace protests, depicted as only 1990's TV movies can depict them.

Duck down! Watch out for that tear gas canister! Look out, flower child in "Flower Child Halloween Costume™!" Hey, random Hare Krishna guy in the back, be mindful of that ROTC stooge! This vivid and gritty depiction of campus protests makes me feel as if I'm actually there! Maybe the time has come to revisit THIS? Or maybe I can just watch ACROSS THE UNIVERSE again.

#2. Bearded Joey Slotnick and his uncanny resemblance to Chuck Norris.

Come on, squint your eyes and it looks just like 'im. But seriously though, Slotnick delivers probably the best performance of his career as Steve Wozniak, Apple co-founder and nerdy folk hero.

#3. The completely psychotic look on Anthony Michael Hall's face as he drives like a goddamn maniac. What is this, the finale of LOST HIGHWAY?

To be fair, he was in Albuquerque, where reportedly there is nothing to do except drive like a maniac. We all saw REPO MAN. Anyway.

Below is Bill Gates' actual mugshot from that actual incident (there were three arrests in all... possible inspiration for USED CARS/MOVING VIOLATIONS/HONKY-TONK FREEWAY?):
Bill Gates
#4. Anthony Michael Hall's look of complete childish elation as he commandeers a purloined bulldozer and engages in a "purloined bulldozer race."

Unfortunately, I have no pictures of the actual Bill Gates participating in a purloined bulldozer race.
#5. Insane melodrama.

Hey, it's a TV movie, cut it some slack. And to be fair, the "How do I even know if this baby's mine" melodrama at least actually happened.

#6. Ludicrous visual devices inspired by technology of the times.

Here, the Woz materializes on a Mac desktop to explain the first Graphic User Interface. I like it.
Next, we have the historic moment of Bill Gates selling DOS to IBM.

The moment is frozen, framed and placed in the Virtual Museum of Computer Achievements, which incidentally resembles some of the mind-blowing graphics from, say, Grollier's 1995 Multimedia Encyclopedia, which at the time I must admit was the most extraordinary thing I had ever seen.
#7. Jobs and the Woz get part-time work re-enacting the mad tea party from ALICE IN WONDERLAND.

No further comment.

#8. Bill Gates Dream Sequence. BILL GATES DREAM SEQUENCE.

#9. Man, the 90's sure loved themselves some recreations of acid trips. Seemed like it was in almost every movie from THE DOORS on.

Always with the bright colors, fish-eye lenses, and overlapping images. Majestic. Ethereal. Trippy.

#10. Authentic wardrobe.

Yep, everything Wyle is wearing there has come straight from the 1970's. Yesiree, yes it has.
I bet you'd have believed me if I claimed that this was a freeze frame from BIO-DOME or HALF BAKED or any number of mid-to-late-90's stoner comedies.

#11. Steve Jobs frisbee-flinging montage.

The best part is that this actually advances plot and character development.

#12. Bill Gates tries to pick up chicks and emulate John Travolta/Linda Blair at a roller-boogie-disco-derby-rink.

"You must have really great bandwidth" he abstrusely compliments a young lass in a horrific display of indiscriminate, socially-inept dickery. Well done, sir!

#13. The laughable things that simply must be said.

I mean, you know of course that these things have been uttered at one time or another, but with Apple and Microsoft being such established entities today, there's no way this can really feel 'natural.' Then again, Jobs could say something like "You're stealing from us with this Windows project, aren't you?" Instead, we get the full-on "I keep hearing about you developing this- THIS- WHAT DO YOU CALL IT? WINDOWS?!" It'd be like in a Revolutionary War movie if John Adams was chatting with Ben Franklin, and Franklin says "Let me introduce you to someone. This is George–W- wait, was it... WASHINGTON? MEET GEORGE WASHINGTON."

Of course, I'm all for this sort of thing. It's somehow sort of like those old episodes of YOUNG INDIANA JONES CHRONICLES whereupon Indy would be visiting in Africa for one day and happens to, in a spectacular chain of coincidences, run into Albert Schweitzer, Teddy Roosevelt, and Ernest Hemingway. What a lucky kid!

In closing, I have to say that I do not mean to demean PIRATES OF SILICON VALLEY by drawing attention to some of its dopier elements. In this perhaps atypical case, they adorn an excellent storytelling spine with scrappy charm and loopy energy which are used to its advantage. Also, if you'd like to read some fascinating anecdotes from the early days of Apple, check out this site. On a few occasions it seems that the reality was toned down for the adaptation!

-Sean Gill


J.D. said...

Hah! Awesome review. I've never seen this film but now I really MUST! Too funny. This would make a good double bill with THE LATE SHIFT, the cheese-tastic biopic about the Leno vs. Letterman late night wars.

Sean Gill said...


Thank you, my friend. And thank you for reminding me about the existence of THE LATE SHIFT, which I never saw, but I remember quite vividly from its promos. Mainly I want to see Daniel "RIVER'S EDGE/Dr. Arzt from LOST" Roebuck playing Jay Leno!

J.D. said...

Yeah, he's good in it. I have soft spot for quickie made fer TV biopics. Another keeper is the Madonna one. I also thoroughly enjoyed the epic miniseries documenting the Woody Allen-Mia Farrell bust-up, LOVE & BETRAYAL: THE MIA FARROW STORY with Dennis Boutsikaris doing a pretty good Woody impression.

Sean Gill said...


Hah! I definitely remember enjoying the Woody Allen one; the Madonna I haven't seen. Two that I've been desperately trying to track down:


REASON FOR LIVING: THE JILL IRELAND STORY ...starring Lance Henriksen as Charles Bronson!

Brian Collins said...

Good review. I remember watching this on a worn out VHS tape recording of one of the original broadcasts in my computers class in high school, commercials and everything. I need to see it again. Very entertaining, very campy (in a good way), and overall very well done.