Writer-director Martyn Burke has taken the battle fought in the microchip trenches at the dawn of the computer revolution and turned it into a wildly entertaining geek tragedy with the stylistic feel of true art. Soulful and marinated in a glaze of irony, “Pirates of Silicon Valley” is reminiscent of Larry Gelbart’s “Barbarians at the Gate” in the way it elevates a tale of feuding millionaires — in this case, billionaires — by switching the perspective out of the boardroom and into the churning minds of its protagonists. The result is a complex, mesmerizing character study masquerading as an American success story.
“Pirates” is about how the greatest technological innovation of the latter half of the 20th century was fueled by a handful of confirmed nerds named Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, Bill Gates, Paul Allen and Steve Ballmer — young bucks brassy enough to think they could change the world and naive enough to believe they could deal with the unfathomable wealth and power, and the inevitable fallout, once they did.
As Burke illustrates in the film, some were better at handling it than others.
The central character in this saga is Jobs (an intense performance from “ER’s” Noah Wyle), who as co-founder of Apple Computer went from a dope-toking, acid-dropping, spiritual eccentric with a hippie girlfriend to a megalomaniacal, ruthless, bullying and paranoid manipulator.
As shown here, Jobs became so wrapped up in his success and his press that his morality was the computer war’s first casualty — even as he convinced himself that his counterculture ethics remained intact.
Jobs’ bearded partner and Apple co-founder Wozniak (great work from Joey Slotnick) serves as narrator throughout much of “Pirates.” The overriding impression is that the gentle, quiet Wozniak was able to keep his head while Jobs was busy losing his. Wozniak was never the big business guy that Jobs was — he never had the aspirations, and wasn’t cut out for the cutthroat industry that was to spring up.
Then there’s the trump card in this deck, an unassuming little geek named Gates, now worth more than God and Rupert Murdoch combined.
In “Pirates,” Gates is played with unassuming restraint by Anthony Michael Hall. Hall, the “Breakfast Club” nerd, is more than up to the task here, as the story casts Gates as a kind of obsessed peripheral player in the home computer explosion who slipped in through the front door (along with partners Allen and Ballmer) while no one was looking.
Tale unfolds chronologically beginning in the early 1970s, with Jobs and Wozniak meeting at Hewlett-Packard, and steers the revolution of discs and chips and switches through Apple’s ballyhooed introduction of the Macintosh in 1984. Jobs and Wozniak are just a couple of pocket-protector-carrying types fooling with gizmos out of their garage when they suddenly attract the attention of the sworn enemy: IBM.
Yet the corporate suits lacked the vision of the driven young nerds, even if neither was much for the social graces. Gates, after knocking into an attractive young woman while ice skating: “You must have really great bandwidth.”
OK, so that one was probably one of those elements “created for dramatic purposes.” Even so, “Pirates” carries the essence of factual basis, if not outright truth. And it’s a complete kick to watch with such giddy hindsight as one business expert after another commits billion-dollar mistakes by underestimating these men and their wacky inventions.
Well, not entirely theirs. One eye-opening facet to Burke’s lively teleplay is the notion that most of what Apple and Microsoft pioneered was either lifted from other sources or stolen outright — such as the mouse (invented by Xerox). How do you think the guy who sold his operating system to Allen for $50,000 — the one that would become DOS — feels today?
Jobs: “Good artists copy. Great artists steal.”
It is impossible to come away from the film feeling anything other than contempt and pity for Jobs, who is alleged here to have become the evil corporate plunderer he had so abhorred in his idealistic youth.
Burke establishes a certain momentum early on and keeps the pace sprightly throughout the pic, then builds to a gloriously ironic climax: the 1997 meeting at which Jobs introduces Gates as a new financial partner in the rebounding Apple, as Gates stares down Big Brother-like from a huge video screen. It’s the perfect capper to what stands as a brilliant piece of filmmaking.
Tech credits sparkle.