the Mouth of Madness:
By Jason "loonyboi" Bergman
Why do I mention all of this? Because I've just spent two hours watching Pirates of Silicon Alley, a new made for television movie that attempts to give the behind the scenes story of Apple, and the creation of the Macintosh (and the creation of Microsoft as well). Unfortunately, while it manages to be fairly entertaining, it simply didn't manage to capture the sheer magic behind what was going on at Apple in those days. Nor, for that matter, does it do a very good job at showing the darker reality of it either.
Steven Levy's wonderful book Insanely Great manages to do both of these things, and I was really hoping to see some of that present in Pirates, but instead the people behind it were more interested in playing up the conflict between Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. Which, while present, isn't exactly the most interesting part of this story.
I've said it before in various places, but Steve Jobs is a personal hero of mine. Aside from the fact that he's directly responsible for my adoption of computers, he's the kind of person who manages to inspire people. And I respect that in more ways than one. But, at the same time, Jobs' relentless pursuit of his dream paid a major toll on his employees. He could be downright cruel to work for…he split Apple right down the middle, and practically destroyed the company in the process. This should have been the basis for Pirates of Silicon Alley. It's a fascinating story of how one man's vision broke friendships, created and almost destroyed a major company, and changed the face of computers forever.
But that's not what Pirates is all about. What Pirates tries to do is encapsulate in less than two hours over twenty years of industry lore. So we see Paul Allen and Bill Gates, the Woz and Steve Jobs, all trying to make it. Wozniak is probably the most accurately portrayed, with Jobs coming off more like Jim Morrison than anything else. Some performances were good, most notably Joey Slotnick's emphatic portrayal of Steve Wozniak, and Noah Wyle's occasionally empowering Jobs, but Anthony Michael Hall's attempt at Bill Gates was more slapstick than acting. He looked the part, but there's more to acting than appearance.
Ultimately, the film suffered from its decision to focus on the conflict between Jobs and Gates. When you're dealing with a period that produced what are now the most powerful companies in the world, you've got a lot of great stuff to deal with. So why did TNT decide to focus on the creation of Windows? Sure in the end Windows became the world's leading operating system, but that's mostly due to an aggressive R&D department and Gates' decision to make software, not hardware. To play up the fact that Gates swiped from Jobs is pretty pointless, and simply not that interesting. What Pirates should have done, is depict what was really going on. Jobs really believed that he was on a crusade against Big Brother with Apple. He solemnly believed from day one that he was going to change the world, and ultimately he did. The 1997 Macworld Expo speech with the enormous Bill Gates hovering over Steve Jobs is one of those images that many of us will never forget…but in Pirates, it simply doesn't mean anything.
If you're looking for a far better depiction of this era, I highly recommend Steven Levy's book, but also PBS' fantastic series, Nerds (and its follow-up, Nerds 2.0.1, which chronicles the creation of the Internet). Hopefully this won't be the last time someone attempts to visualize one of the most significant eras in the brief history of the computer industry…it's a great story that deserves immortality.
- Jason "loonyboi" Bergman is the editor-in-chief of loonygames.
Credits: From the Mouth of Madness logo illustrated by and is © 1999 Dan Zalkus. From the Mouth of Madness is © 1999 Jason Bergman. All other content is © 1999 loonyboi productions. Unauthorized reproduction is strictly prohibited, so don't do it...or we'll just forget about you. Let's see how you like it.