Network: Revenge of the nerds

A new film portrays old rivals Gates and Jobs as you've never seen them before.
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The Independent Culture
How do you make computer geeks look sexy? It's a problem Martyn Burke took on when he agreed to direct Pirates of Silicon Valley, Turner Network Television's film about the rivals Steve Jobs and Bill Gates.

The film works hard to round out these two characters, focusing on personality and relationships instead of long nights of hard work - a strategy that makes for an entertaining but controversial film. After an advance screening last month, Silicon Valley was abuzz with gossip as Apple employees and others debated how much of the film was based in fact, how much was artistic licence, and whether it should have been made at all.

Pirates, which airs in the US on Sunday, tracks the rise of Gates and Jobs from dingy motel room (Microsoft) and home garage (Apple) to the boardrooms of multi-million-dollar companies. ER's Noah Wyle plays the charismatic, acid-dropping, too-creative-for-his-own-good Jobs. Building personal computers is "practically spiritual," Jobs tells Apple's co-founder Steve Wozniak. "Maybe in a past life I was a poet."

Anthony "Weird Science" Michael Hall is a dead ringer for the nerdier, cannier Gates, whose eye is always fixed on the practical; you tell people you have what they need and then you sell it to them, he advises a Harvard classmate. But there are similarities between Gates and Jobs, too. Both are enterprising businessmen who bought technology developed by others and resold it at a premium - a point made in the excellent 1996 documentary Triumph of the Nerds, which also detailed how Apple got the mouse from Xerox, how Microsoft bought DOS off the shelf for $50,000, and how it introduced Windows in 1983, after Apple had developed the Macintosh interface.

But the writer/ director Burke knows that tales of corporate raiding don't hold an audience. The fun of the film is in its colourful anecdotes: Jobs dressed up as the Mad Hatter, dancing with Hare Krishnas, or propping his bare feet on a boardroom table and asking a prospective employee, "Are you a virgin?"; Gates trying to pick up girls ("I'll bet you have great bandwidth"), or buying a tie off a guy in a lavatory stall before a meeting with IBM.

Burke says he made a conscious decision not to talk or meet Jobs or Gates as he wrote and directed the film: "I did not want to do an `authorised biography' on either Microsoft or Apple." Researchers collected information on the two companies, and "two or more sources verify each scene". Still, it's clear that some artistic licence was taken. Did Jobs' first acid trip really consist of conducting Vivaldi while shouting, "Everything's moving just the way I want it"? Did Gates really spend his pre-Microsoft days reading Playboy and going to strip clubs?

Other scenes are plainly wrong. For example, the film shows Jobs developing the first personal computer at the University of California, Berkeley, though Jobs never attended Berkeley, and Wozniak built his first demo computer three years before he met Jobs. And Gates has never, despite the title of the film, worked or lived in Silicon Valley.

Both Apple and Microsoft declined to comment on the movie, though a spokesperson for Apple told The Independent that "folks have been talking about it around here". Wozniak, who no longer works for Apple, insists that he never saw Jobs do drugs first-hand, and didn't witness him becoming "hysterical" with employees, as he does in the film. In a recent interview, Wozniak said he liked the film (no surprise there; Wozniak, played by Joey Slotnick, is the only nice, if slightly wimpy, character), but that there are inaccuracies: there were no Animal House-style antics at Apple (Pirates depicts rival engineering teams in a food fight), and Apple's co-founder Mike Markkula was no "slime-ball", as depicted in the film, but Apple's "important" third partner.

Inaccuracies aside, the story is compelling. The classic rivalry between the visionary and the bureaucrat has a whiff of Shakespearean drama about it: think Prince Hal and Hotspur, Kennedy and Kissinger, hare and tortoise.

But the film, which focuses on the decade leading up to 1984, fails to explain the nuances. It doesn't answer the questions it poses at the outset: Why did Jobs decide to return to Apple in 1996, and how, after declaring war on Gates ("This is like doing business with a praying mantis. You get seduced then eaten afterwards"), could Jobs publicly applaud Microsoft's 1997 purchase of Apple shares? It also ignores recent developments, such as Microsoft's anti-trust suit, and Apple's success with the iMac and G3 lines.

There's certainly a great tale to be told about these two personalities; unfortunately, this isn't it.