Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle TV Eye

By Belinda Acosta

JUNE 21, 1999:  In my much younger days, I was a sucker for those "based on a true story" TV movies. Contact with the supernatural and alien abductions were favorite themes, my interest made keener when "based on a true story" was attached to the movie. Later, of course, I discovered that the truth of these movies could be assembled from many sources, from the participants who claim to have lived the events of the movie to the stringing together of several witness accounts, turning the truth into something resembling one of those mysterious, potted meats. Sure, it says "meat" on the outside, but would you really want to eat it?

Try as I might, I cannot bring myself to seriously watch network TV movies, which tend to lean toward small-screen versions of formulaic romance novels, mysteries, or thrillers, with titles like Mother, May I Sleep With Danger?Close to Danger, and What Love Sees. Cable channels like Showtime, Encore, HBO, TNT, A&E, and even Lifetime develop internal film projects, which offer a welcome alternative to the networks' pap. Not that the cable alternatives are inherently better, but at least the formulas are a little more sophisticated.

The Pirates of Silicon Valley is not going to revolutionize the TV movie, but it at least manages to tweak story-telling conventions a bit, while outlining the events that led to the eruption of the personal computer industry led by Apple Computer's Steve Jobs (played by ER's Noah Wyle), and Microsoft's Bill Gates (Anthony Michael Hall).

After a false beginning which works as a prologue, Pirates is narrated by dual narrators, Steve Wozniak (Joey Slotnick) for the Jobs camp, and Steve Ballmer (John DiMaggio) for Gates. The use of dual narrators is a good tactic until a few stitches in the visual dialogue are dropped, making this viewer reach for the rewind button. First, it doesn't help that there are three Steves in the movie. Second, when the narration changes from Wozniak to Ballmer, it is nearly invisible and comes after the viewer assumes that Wozniak is the sole narrator (he narrates the prologue and the opening Jobs sequence). An earlier, establishing head shot of Ballmer speaking would have removed all confusion. These early wrinkles aside, once Pirates settles into its narrative groove, the movie unfolds fairly efficiently.

A surprisingly good performance is turned in by Slotnick -- surprising perhaps only to me, who jeered at him when he appeared in a supporting role in NBC's The Single Guy. Since Slotnick as Wozniak carries the bulk of narration duties, it's no surprise that we come to know him better than Jobs or Gates, the centerpieces of the movie. But it doesn't matter. Writer-director Martyn Burke seems more interested in detailing the specific events that led to the burgeoning of an empire than in revealing the interior lives of Jobs or Gates. Some broad hints are given about Jobs, but the character of Gates, in spite of Hall's valiant efforts, comes off as a one-dimensional geek.

Noah Wylie, left and Anthony Micheal Hall as Steve Jobs and Bill Gates in The Pirates of Silicon Valley

Still, the movie is interesting, particularly when pre-PC ignorance is considered next to the present computer literacy that we now take for granted. That, and seeing the early moments when IBM, Xerox, and Hewlett-Packard rebuffed Jobs and Gates, only to eat their dust later. Of course, that's when they were two Daveys throwing stones at the Goliaths. Now that they're the Goliaths, one wonders who is gathering stones in preparation for the next wave in the revolution -- and if Jobs and Gates will meet it with the same blind arrogance with which the old corporations met them.

Screenings of The Pirates of Silicon Valley occur Wednesday, June 23, 7pm; Friday, June 25, 11:30am; Saturday, June 26, 7pm; Sunday, June 27, at noon and 10pm. Check local listings to confirm dates and times.

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