Pirates of Silicon Valley (Martyn Burke, 1999)

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Pirates of Silicon Valley, directed by Martyn Burke (1999).

Score: The one film you have to watch if you want to learn about the birth of the personal computer.

My friends and I joked over dinner about how ridiculous it would be if Michael Fassbender won the Oscar over Leonardo DiCaprio on Sunday for playing Steve Jobs after watching The Revenant. “Pirates of Silicon Valley! Now that was an accurate movie about Steve Jobs!”, we sentenced. I remembered watching half of it on TV one afternoon after a nap and decided it needed proper watching.

Pirates of Silicon Valley is a made-for-TV docudrama about the first years in the existence of Apple Computers and Microsoft, back when it was still called Micro-Soft. The segments that focus on Steve Jobs (Noah Wyle) are narrated by a fictionalized version of Steve Wozniak (Joey Slotnick) and the ones about Bill Gates (Anthony Michael Hall) and Paul Allen (Josh Hopkins), by the in-universe Steve Ballmer (John DiMaggio). The movie follows the adventures of these Harvard dropouts and unlikely billionaires while they design the prototypes for the first personal computers under the noses of IBM, who couldn’t begin to think what an everyman had to do with a computer, steal the graphic user interface and mouse from Xerox and finally fight each other over prominence putting a juicy operative system out in the market.

What Pirates of Silicon Valley lacks in the technical department (and seriously, the movie poster is hideously designed) it makes up for in historical accuracy. Both Bill Gates and Steve Wozniak have publicly acknowledged that the movie was a “reasonably accurate portrayal”, and that is really something. And it is a severe one for Jobs. He’s shown being a fusty hippie, then a cut-throat entrepreneur and later a fairly abusive CEO, spiced up with his refusing to acknowledge his daughter and his outright stealing of other people’s ideas. Bill Gates’ portrayal is only slightly more flattering. Unlike the 2013 biopic, this does not hesitate to bring up the nastiest aspects of Jobs’ personality (and according to some of his biographers, there were many).

While the writing is not top-notch, it effectively combines scenes from the history of the companies, the history of personal computers and the personal lives of the people involved for a quite entertaining and informative result. Especially interesting for people who do not speak computer and want to know how it all started. Spoiler alert: it is a not very inspiring story and there’s some dirty laundry in it.

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