A natty encapsulation of the two-decade-long evolution of the Linux computer operating system (the chief rival to Microsoft’s Windows), J.T.S. Moore’s “Revolution OS” consists primarily of talking-heads interviews with an exhaustive selection of self-proclaimed “hackers.” It may not be a prime date movie — unless the date is between two MIT students. Pic’s subjects are some of the most extreme-left-fringe wackos ever to grace the silver screen, members of the staunchly anti-Microsoft “Free Software” or “Open Source” movement, although filmmaker has built a series of surprising reversals into the film. The cheery, puckish concoction that results actually seems targeted equally at the techno-illiterate and the savvy-hacker crowd; it educates one while canonizing the other.
Once upon a time, when computers were new, software was traded freely between users without much thought to ownership and intellectual-property rights. This lax attitude (which extended to software developers) allowed users to liberally modify the underlying language (aka source code) of computer programs to make them more useful for certain applications.
Enter Bill Gates. As early as the mid-1970s, he began to argue vigorously for the idea of “proprietary software” — the tangle of copyrights and licensing agreements familiar to software users today. While making Microsoft a brand name (and himself a billionaire in the process), Gates’ philosophy was anathema to a burgeoning legion of “free software” proponents.
The first part of “Revolution OS” includes a good deal of ranting against Gates and his monolithic, monopolistic empire. (It’s everything you might have expected from Brian Flemming’s mockumentary “Nothing So Strange” that wasn’t in that film.) Every once in a while, Moore fills the frame with a shaky, super-tight closeup of a “Microsoft” sign, with portentous music on the soundtrack to make sure viewers know who the bad guy is.
But Gates isn’t the only villain here, and once “Revolution OS” gets past its initial bout of sloganeering, it settles into a nifty groove. Pic’s real purpose is to draw wider attention to a little-known David-and-Goliath struggle, between renegade programmers, working mostly independently of one another at places such as Berkeley, Stanford and MIT, and the rest of the computer-software world. Focusing on Richard Stallman (the Jerry Garcia-esque guru of Free Software) and Linus Torvalds (who, at age 21, designed the “kernel program” that was the final piece of Stallman’s puzzle), pic charts, in detail, not just the development of Linux but the ideology behind it.
Employing Stallman’s concept of “copyleft” (as opposed to “copyright”), Linux and its various hybrids are indeed owned by their creators and are licensed by users. But via an ingenious licensing agreement written by Stallman, users who modify these programs’ open-source code then are required to make their modifications available to other users, in accordance with nine Free Software principles. It’s an appealingly utopian idea, but one that it’s hard to imagine being applied to other intellectual-property realms.
Much of what makes “Revolution OS” so enjoyable is that it’s from a hacker’s point-of-view; it hurls oodles of factoids at you while patting you on the back reassuringly, saying, “It’s OK if you don’t get it all, because we do.”
Choice to shoot in anamorphic widescreen gives talking heads more cinematic flair than most, and Moore finds a sleek beauty in the tracking shots of industrial-strength computer hardware — with all its blinking switches, lights and knobs — that he frequently intercuts.