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Television: The Way They Were

4 minute read
Michael Krantz/Los Angeles

It’s 1976, and a handful of unkempt longhairs are hard at work over some odd machines in a crowded garage when a man in a suit walks in out of the California sunshine to offer them a big, fat pile of cash. The group’s leader takes offense at this gauche tender of venture capital; Apple Computer’s mission, Steve Jobs explains, is “practically spiritual.” And then he takes the money.

Every epochal moment in Pirates of Silicon Valley (June 20, 8 p.m. E.T.), TNT’s smart new movie about the birth of the PC industry, comes complete with a similar backdoor irony. Pirates’ writer-director Martyn Burke (who co-wrote HBO’s caustic The Pentagon Wars) plants his story in the fertile ground of the baby boomers’ art-vs.-commerce conundrum. “Steve Jobs’ garage is the starting point of an entire culture,” Burke says. “It got going in the early ’70s, when the campuses were being occupied by antiwar protesters, but these guys–Jobs, Bill Gates, Paul Allen, Steve Wozniak–were the ones who really overthrew the Establishment. And then they became everything the counterculture was against.”

Pirates tracks the rivalry between twin iconic weirdos: Jobs and Gates, temperamental opposites who shadow each other from their early days on the tech-conference fringe to the top of the NASDAQ charts. But the movie’s focus is primarily on the turbulent Jobs, an adopted child who spends his life creating, and then rejecting, alternative identities, in true ’60s seeker style. “One of the things that most fascinates me about him is his ability to blend Eastern philosophy with Western business techniques,” says ER’s Noah Wyle, who took the role after watching the PBS documentary Triumph of the Nerds. “Nowadays every high-powered agent has Sun Tzu on his desk; he was the first person I know of who did that.” Apple, for Jobs, was a messianic imperative: give the world a Mac, and the rest of the Flower Power agenda would follow. The classic-rock sound track wittily comments on his pilgrim’s progress: dropping acid; dodging cops in People’s Park; undergoing primal-scream therapy; abusing employees during midnight prowls down Apple’s halls; inexplicably refusing to acknowledge paternity of his baby daughter Lisa, who lives with her mother in an Oregon commune.

Although the showier role belongs to Wyle, who ably trades the blue-blood reserve of ER’s Carter for Jobs’ loose-limbed swagger, the movie’s secret weapon is Anthony Michael Hall, whose work here will startle viewers who recall only the nerdy teen who kept hitting on Molly Ringwald in Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club. “This was a huge opportunity for me,” says Hall, clearly thrilled at this escape from Ex-Child Star Hell. “I saw it as an incredible gift–a chance to reinvent myself.”

He makes the most of it. The film leaves Gates’ personal story in the background, but Hall fleshes out the character by nailing the Microsoft chairman in all his scary intensity, from the whining, reedy voice to the shrunken-tortoise posture, body collapsed in on itself as if conserving all energy for a mind whose unfathomable power emerges only via his ever gleaming eyes. Whether peering over a winning poker hand in a Harvard dorm, patiently waiting out one of Jobs’ flailing rages or cutting a deal with some hapless executive, Hall never loses–or lets us lose–sight of Gates as the man who will be king.

But the most entertaining thing about Pirates is the fact that–pro forma statements about inaccuracies from both camps aside–the corporate soap-opera events it recounts went down largely as Burke presents them: Jobs really did launch Apple in his parents’ garage; his team really did steal the Macintosh’s revolutionary visual-desktop design from under Xerox’s nose; Gates really did talk IBM into licensing an operating system that he didn’t yet own to run the first PC; and Jobs really did trust Microsoft with the Mac prototype, never believing Gates would, at least in Jobs’ view, nab his best stuff for a new program called Windows.

Is it any wonder that these guys were finally deemed ready for their close-up? And can a David E. Kelley dramedy set in some com start-up in Palo Alto be more than a couple of pilot seasons away? The millennium approaches, and–we swear, after this we’ll retire the line forever–the geeks have indeed inherited the earth.

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