Pirates of Silicon Valley (1999)

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Director/Writer: Martyn Burke

From the book by: Paul Freiberger and Michael Swaine.

Martyn Burke writes and directs this made for TV adaptation of Paul Freiberger and Michael Swain’s book Fire in the Valley: The Making of the Personal Computer.

As a votary of the recent Steve Jobs biopic, and a long-term fan of the trophy laden Social Network, it’s probably no surprise to anyone that I enjoyed this flick.  But I really, really, did.  I was already half-asleep when it started, but within the first five minutes (maybe four), my fatigue was gone.  I was riveted.

Firstly, I like the script.  It’s full of effective little setups and payoffs, and Burke’s commitment to a tight structure makes the film an engrossing and effortless watch, even if some of the dialogue is a bit on the nose (When Jobs visits his wife after months of estrangement she broaches by saying “It’s been what.  A year?”).  Continuous threads of voiceover buoy all of the action; in the Microsoft chapters, future CEO Steve Balmer (exuberantly handled by John DiMaggio) gives frequent asides, sometimes walking right out of the frame, and directly addressing the audience (the kind of shtick you imagine Balmer doing on stage, at an exposition or a tech launch).  In the Apple chapters, voice-over duty falls to character actor Joey Sotnick, in an honest and affable turn as Steve Wozniak.  Like their real-life counterparts,  DiMaggio and Slotnick are engaging for their sheer charisma.  Both characters are essentially lackeys; subjugated, undervalued, and in the case of Wozniak, frequently  maltreated.  We warm to them almost at once, and their flair for narration is perfectly apt, given that both Balmer and Wozniak are, in reality, great raconteurs.

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In the foreground we have Noah Wyle and Anthony Michael Hall; both commendably nuanced as the two warring moguls, though perhaps moreso Wyle.  Jobs is captured as a manic perfectionist — benevolent at turns, violent and coercive at others.  His performance falls somewhere between a barker at an upscale carnival, and a demented cult leader — with shades of a Manhattan apothecary thrown in.

Gates, on the other hand, comes off as equally driven, but a lot less alienating.  Hall makes the character gauche and clumsy, but also shows us why: his priorities are elsewhere.  Gates simply doesn’t have the bandwidth to spare for fashion or social graces, and is disdainful of Jobs’ fanatical new-age spieling.  Instead, he divides his time between two things: making computers, and goofing off with friends.  Unlike his rival, Gates is made to appear as essentially good-humoured, with a  sense of fun that, at times, borders on the reckless.  Perhaps the biggest disconnect between the two figureheads lies in Gates’ ability to tolerate a ribbing — usually from the outrageous Balmer — whereas Jobs is simply too postured to stoop.

It was undeniably refreshing to see Hall as a lanky, inelegant nerd once again — after the Brat Pack disbanded, he eschewed a decade of typecasting in order to play a string of bullying jocks (Tales from the Crypt, Edward Scissorhands etc.).  This is understandable, given that he filled out a rather big frame, but all the same, it’s fun to have him back, and wearing the role so comfortably.

If I have one complaint, it’s that the 1:33:1 version of the DVD has not yet been made available.  Instead, home audiences will have to contend with the original broadcast version in 4:3.  At least it’s not a panned-and-scanned conversion, being that this project was always — for better or worse — intended for the small screen.  In any case, don’t be put off by its origins (I appreciate that even in the age of Netflix and VOD, the words ‘TV MOVIE’ still carry a fair stigma), this is deft and intelligent filmmaking, with none of the Hallmark trappings.

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Spirited performances and economical pacing make sure that every scene — whether characters are tinkering in garages, or conferencing with suits — is hugely compelling.  And as the sense of achievement (or ‘revolution’, as Jobs repeatedly states) mounts steadily to a pitch, its hard not to be swept up in the fervour.  Like its contemporaries Steve Jobs and The Social Network, Pirates of Silicon Valley delivers more thrills, and more invention, than most blockbuster fare, and does so on a fraction of the budget.  I can’t praise the cast enough.  This is an impressively successful film in every department, and certainly one deserving of a revival.  Did I mention that it has a kicking soundtrack?

S.S.

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