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Valley of the Dolts

How do you make an interesting movie about the people who created the multibillion-dollar computer industry? How do you dramatize the creation of empires built on soldering connections on circuit boards and writing lines of computer code?

If you're the creator of "The Pirates of Silicon Valley," which premieres Sunday on TNT, you do it by playing up the downright weirdness of the people who made it all happen.

It's not a bad idea, really. In one corner, we've got Bill Gates, a pasty-faced computer geek from Harvard who ended up the richest man in the world; in the other, there's Steve Jobs, an ex-hippie with a tendency to wear sandals to high-powered board meetings.

The ad campaign for "Pirates" suggests that the movie is about Gates and Jobs, and it is -- but not in the way you might think. In reality, "Pirates" is much more the story of Steve Jobs -- a fact probably enhanced by the fact that Jobs is played by ER's Dr. Carter, Noah Wyle, while Gates is played by ex-brat-packer Anthony Michael Hall under what appears to be a fright wig.

Jobs is the intriguing character "Pirates" is built around, and rightly so. He's a marketing genius who sees the potential power of his pal Steve Wozniak's invention, which becomes the first Apple computer. He's a master motivator, using a new-age philosophy obviously left over from his hippie days to get his employees to stay awake for days on end working for him. But he's also a real bastard, completely decimating a job applicant by repeatedly asking him if he's a virgin, abusing those same sleepless employees who were so loyal to him, and inexplicably denying responsibility for his first child while at the same time insisting that he be the one to choose the baby's name.

Gates, on the other hand, is used as a contrast to Jobs. Where Jobs is running with the student protesters at Berkeley or having wild acid trips, Gates is keeping a stack of Playboys in his Harvard dorm room and taking joyrides on stolen farm equipment. If you're rooting for the esteemed United States government in the current U.S. v. Microsoft antitrust trial, you won't be disappointed with "Pirates" -- in this movie, Gates is portrayed as a lying, thieving con man who doesn't have a creative bone in his body and only seeks to become as rich and successful as he can, morality be damned.

The problem with "Pirates" is that it's all about clever anecdotes and window-dressing, and not at all concerned with the human beings in the story. Afraid -- and rightly so -- of creating a movie where all the excitement involves engineering clever computers and writing interesting programs, instead "Pirates" goes for a colorful series of stories about those wacky computer people. Why do Jobs and Gates act the way they do? The movie doesn't care. It's enough that they behaves strangely in a series of events that have become legendary in computer-industry circles.

I will make a confession: I work in the computer industry, covering it for a monthly magazine. I am also a Macintosh partisan. Will someone who knows nothing about computers find "Pirates of Silicon Valley" entertaining? They certainly won't quite know what's going on -- the parade of wacky anecdotes, I expect, will make the plot hard to follow -- but they might get some chuckles out of the odd behavior of these future captains of industry.

As somewhat of an insider, I'll admit I winced several times at the despicable behavior of Steve Jobs, but I wasn't surprised. From all stories, he's a brilliant, driven asshole. And even though Wyle is extremely likeable -- despite all the jerking around his ER character received this year, Wyle always shined through -- Jobs comes across as a man so obsessed with making his name go down in the history books that he'll do anything to achieve that goal. As opposed to Gates, who simply wants power and money.

The film's stream-of-anecdotes approach to storytelling makes "Pirates" so much like a documentary that it even has two narrators, Wozniak (played by former Single Guy supporting actor Joey Slotnick) and Gates pal Steve Ballmer (played by John DiMaggio, the voice of Bender the robot on Futurama). Despite all the hype given to Wyle and Hall, Slotnick and DiMaggio really are the film's two best assets. Slotnick plays Wozniak as an affable, friendly guy who accidentally got involved in this whole crazy story. He's the only truly likeable character in the bunch, an engineer who enjoyed creating computers and eventually quit Apple to teach kids about computers.

Ballmer is most definitely not likeable, either in the film or in real life. A bombastic, obnoxious character -- he's Bill Gates' pit bull, the mean guy to counterbalance Gates' benign geek role -- it's easy to assume that DiMaggio has gone completely over the top in playing him. But in reality, DiMaggio has nailed Ballmer straight on. And it's hilarious to watch, just as observers of the real-life Ballmer have learned to sit back and enjoy the light show whenever he goes off on a rant.

As a document of the Silicon Valley revolution, "Pirates of Silicon Valley" is really nothing more than a tarted-up docudrama: as the ads say, it's "based on a true story," except this one is about billionaires instead of baby-snatchers. For the real thing, you'd be better off looking for the PBS documentary "Triumph of the Nerds," which tells the same story with real interviews with the real people involved in making this history. As a character study, it's a failure -- we learn that neither Gates nor Jobs are people we'd want to have dinner with, but we don't ever really learn why they behave the way they do.

In the end, the only truly powerful message of "Pirates of Silicon Valley" is that for all of Jobs' idealism and hippie-like desire to change the world, it was the unbridled greed and immorality of the capitalist shark Gates who ended up as the richest man in the world, even owning a chunk of Jobs' beloved Apple.

What, you mean the guys with hearts of steel will beat the touchy-feely creative types every time? Not exactly a revelation. And neither, unfortunately, is "Pirates of Silicon Valley."


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