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Pirates of Silicon Valley (1999)

by on 2010/05/13

Early in the life of Geek vs Goth I surveyed various geek movie lists online.  Surprisingly few of them recognized Pirates of Silicon Valley as worthy of inclusion, let alone celebration.  In fact, I found the movie on only one such list.  I didn’t think much about this general oversight at the time.  I assumed the list makers had dismissed Pirates summarily for being a biopic, rather than outright fiction or perhaps because it was a made-for-television movie, rather than a theatrical one.

Not long after, a catastrophic “incident” with my Windows-based system led me to reconsider our longstanding relationship.  I thought about my options:  start again with the familiarity of Windows, appreciate the low (or no) cost of Linux, or perhaps luxuriate with a much-lauded Apple running Mac OS X.

As of this writing I’ve hedged my bets, keeping all three running for an indefinite evaluation.  It’s been about two months now and, truth be told, I didn’t expect the trial to last so long.  Unfortunately, none of the systems have proven ideal and, while they’ve all disappointed me, none have missed my expectations more than the Mac.  Once, briefly, I owned a Macbook, and had always regretted losing it.  So now, in the back of my mind, I had expected Apple to win me over, if not for its widely-acclaimed user-friendliness then at least to justify its comparative expense.

When I got around to seeing Pirates of Silicon Valley recently, the movie reminded me why I was less enchanted by the Apple way than I’d hoped.  For one thing, I’ve found the mantra to “think different” bittersweet.  Different is not necessarily better, just different.  At the time of this (admittedly obvious) revelation, I asked my esteemed co-reviewer, hypothetically, “What now?  Do I throw in with the Borg or the jackals?”

Apple, as portrayed in Pirates, uneasily embodies the values (or perhaps a lack thereof) of one of its founders, Steve Jobs (Noah Wyle).  He comes across a bit like one of those kids you might have known as a child:  oddly cool but actually a bit scary when you get to know them better.  If you do anything untoward, step out of line or — heaven help you — don’t play by their (often unspoken) rules, they’re gone.  And they’re taking the toys with them.  And maybe they beat you up on the way out for good measure.

Hoping to challenge Apple’s reign as the people’s system of choice is Microsoft, led by Bill Gates (Anthony Michael Hall).  He employs a kind of manic rationality against Apple’s aesthetics, and a subtle, insidious deception to Jobs’ outright bullying.

Most of us know how the Mac-and-PC story goes but — having wrapped in the late Nineties — this movie does not.  (I say “goes” rather than “ends” because their David-and-Goliath rivalry continues to this day.)  Pirates of Silicon Valley concludes with the apparent salvation — and thus conquering-by-shame — of Apple by Microsoft.  Maybe there’s a message in there somewhere.  Live by the sword, die by the sword?  The meek shall inherit the Earth?  The best revenge is living well?  Pick your significance.

In a high-profile 2007 reunion with Bill Gates, Steve Jobs concluded the interview by quoting the Beatles’ song, “Two of Us”:  “You and I have memories longer than the road that stretches out ahead.”  At the time, those words seemed infused with sentiment and profundity in equal measure.

After my recent experiences, however, Jobs’ quotation leads me to interpret a different  moral from the outcome of Pirates:  keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.

* * * *

Unrated, containing adult situations, coarse language, and substance abuse

95 minutes

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