Revisiting 'Pirates of Silicon Valley', the original Steve Jobs movie

This 1999 TV movie about the rivalry between Apple and Microsoft starred Noah Wyle as Jobs and Anthony Michael Hall as a calculating Bill Gates. Does it hold up today?

Richard Trenholm Former Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
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Richard Trenholm
5 min read

"I don't want you to think of this as just a film...We're rewriting the history of human thought with what we're doing." So begins the first film to dramatise the life and times of Apple founder Steve Jobs. With new biopic "Steve Jobs" in theatres soon, we look back at 1999's "Pirates of Silicon Valley".

"Pirates" focuses on the heated personal rivalry between Steve Jobs of Apple and Bill Gates of Microsoft, recounting the parallel and often intertwined stories of the two companies and their tempestuous founders. Written and directed by photojournalist and documentary-maker Martyn Burke, the TV movie was based on the book "Fire in the Valley: The Making of The Personal Computer" by Paul Freiberger and Michael Swaine. It was first shown on TNT in June 1999.

Noah Wyle, then in the middle of his role as Dr. Carter in "ER", plays the hippie-turned-executive Jobs. Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates is played by Anthony Michael Hall, relegated to TV after his '80s teen movie heyday but soon to have something of a career revival as the lead in "The Dead Zone".

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Wyle is uncannily similar to the young Apple co-founder: Jobs' real-life college buddy and Apple employee #12, Daniel Kottke, has said, "I found myself thinking it was actually Steve on the screen." But Hall's is the more interesting performance. In the popular imagination Gates is the nerd and Jobs is the visionary, but "Pirates of Silicon Valley" slyly suggests who's the winner, Hall topping Gates' awkward smirk with the steely, dead-eyed gaze of a poker player.

Walter Isaacson's biography of Jobs describes Gates as one of the few people resistant to Jobs' infamous "reality distortion field", and while Jobs the mercurial visionary might dismiss his Harvard-educated rival Gates as having "no taste", the film portrays the calculating Microsoft man playing Jobs like a fiddle.

"Success is a menace," says Hall as Gates. "It fools smart people into thinking they can't lose."

Noah Wyle is an uncanny Steve Jobs (left) and Anthony Michael Hall is a steely Bill Gates in 1999's "Pirates of Silicon Valley". Turner Network Television

Although it clearly lacks the Hollywood prestige of Aaron Sorkin and Danny Boyle, the men behind the new Jobs biopic, "Pirates of Silicon Valley" is shot with real verve. Cleverly opening with a recreation of Apple's iconic 1984 advert, the film keeps its potentially technical subject matter light, with visual flair from the opening monologue fake-out to the camera tracking over the chaos of a counter-cultural riot or prowling down a boardroom table.

The parallel stories of the two companies are narrated by their respective co-founders Steve Wozniak and Steve Ballmer, long-time friends of Jobs and Gates. You might recognise the ebullient Ballmer's dulcet tones: he's played by John DiMaggio, the voice of Bender in "Futurama". Their narration is brought to life as Ballmer breaks the fourth wall to step out of a frozen scene and explain how Gates built his vast fortune on a lie, while Woz wanders into a Mac's graphic user interface and begins pointing stuff out. Meanwhile the collision of counterculture and technology in Silicon Valley at the time is evoked by effective 1970s and '80s music cues from The Moody Blues to Talking Heads.

The film shows how these anarchic early friendships formed into effective business partnerships, each player balancing the other's strengths and weaknesses. The brilliant but shy Wozniak needs Jobs' understanding of people to sell his inventions, while Ballmer's fast-talking sales patter supports Gates' somewhat chaotic inventiveness. One comic scene sees Ballmer solving the problem of Gates forgetting his tie by climbing a bathroom stall and attempting to buy the tie from around the neck of a startled businessman.

These young turks take LSD, race stolen bulldozers and operate out of garages and seamy motels. Depicted as a winning combination of youthful iconoclasm and technical brilliance, they're presented in deliberate contrast to the stuffed shirts of the then big computer companies IBM and Xerox, who are comically unaware of the way the wind is blowing.

And as the title suggests these bright young men really are pirates, frequently plundering other companies and scamming or outright stealing their way to success. Jobs' Macintosh team really did fly a customised Jolly Roger flag over the Apple campus, and Jobs really did say, "It's more fun to be a pirate than to join the navy."

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The only person portrayed in the film as aware of the new danger is also the only woman in the film who is a part of the technology side of the story, a Xerox project manager who appears in just one scene and isn't even named. Sassily essayed by the late Holly Lewis, the character is based on real-life Xerox employee Adele Goldberg, who (correctly) warned against allowing the Apple boys to look at Xerox PARC technology.

Fans of "The Walking Dead" may also recognise Melissa McBride, who plays Carol in AMC's zombie show, as Elizabeth Holmes, who went to college with Jobs and was an early Apple employee.

"Pirates" is focused on recounting events rather than getting into the heads of its characters, so there's not a great deal of insight into their motivations. But the film doesn't shrink from the darker side of Jobs' character when depicting his transformation from bearded hippie to bow tie-wearing multimillionaire. A college drop-out with a fascination for mind-expanding drugs and zen philosophy, Jobs could be paradoxically obnoxious, cold and vindictive, in both his personal and professional lives.

His capricious temper is shown here as he crushes employees -- which one-time Apple marketing chief Mike Murray called "management by character assassination" -- or destroys a potential hire by demanding "Are you a virgin?", a question he startled people with on more than one occasion in real life. His callousness is seen as he shuts out his friends, who had helped him build Apple, from the stock issue that made him vastly wealthy. And most damningly, he's shown denying he's the father of his daughter from a relationship with a fictional version of Jobs' real-life girlfriend, Crissan Brennan.

Jobs is clearly portrayed as thriving on conflict, but his delight in turning his own company against itself leads directly to his downfall. It's worth remembering that "Pirates" was made in 1999, and back then Gates really did look like the winner between the two. At the time, Microsoft unassailably dominated the personal computer world. Jobs had been unceremoniously ousted from Apple a couple of years earlier, and although he had returned, his company had been making huge losses. By 1999 the iMac was a hit and Apple was taking its first steps towards becoming the cultural phenomenon it is today, but "Pirates of Silicon Valley" predates that global success: it was made before the iPod, before the iPhone, before Jobs adopted his famous black turtleneck uniform and cult leader status.

As such the film is an enjoyable primer on the foundation of Apple (and Microsoft) and an interesting look at the first act of the Jobs legend. Perhaps the new "Steve Jobs" movie will shed more light on the second act.

You can watch "Pirates of Silicon Valley" on DVD or Google Play in the US, and Amazon Instant Video in the UK. It doesn't appear to be available in Australia.