Jon's Review (continued from above)
Some day, a great movie will be made about the Microsoft era, about the arrogance and predations of Bill Gates' monumental power snatch, and the resulting hacker revolution that spawned the open source and free software movements and rocked corporate America.
But the idea that Antitrust is it, or even comes close, is a hustle. Watching a Hollywood studio take the open source idea and infuse it with one stupid line, cliched and inane plot twist after another, and try to turn it into a contemporary thriller, is mildly entertaining for about 10 minutes. But that can't mask the fact that Antitrust doesn't work, either as pop history or, more importantly, as a movie.
Antitrust is the first attempt by Hollywood to capture the genuine drama that occurred in the '80s and '90s when Gates and Microsoft very nearly monopolized the entire software industry, thus the Net and the Web. The media fawned and the government looked the other way for years, even as evidence mounted that rapacious business practices were out of control and the less-than-best possible software was all the public could buy.
It's also the first major movie to introduce the non-tech public to the idea of open source, and in a positive, if confusing and not particularly intelligent way.
Insofar as Gates got reined in at all, it was initially by a motley band of teenagers and older hackers and coders around the world who worked collaboratively -- sometimes for fun, sometimes for idealistic reasons -- to develop alternative programs and operating systems.
That's a pretty dramatic story. Moviemakers are under no obligation to render it literally, with technical accuracy, or even faithfully, but neither should they get away with concocting something this lame.
Perhaps MGM is banking on the fact that the movie is more or less technically accurate (the producers hired hackers as consultants); therefore, maybe for the first time in movie history. But the resulting almost-patronizing Open Source blabber and technical fireworks don't cut it.
Consider the film's conceit, for instance, that one of the ways the evil corporation NURV ("Never Underestimate Radical Vision") stays competitive is to use hidden video cameras to spy on the keyboards of all the smart young programmers in the world and feed their discoveries into a central network -- hidden in a day care center. They then commit their perfidy to videotape, and leave the evidence in non-encrypted, accessible files. That's only one example of the screenplay's foolishness.
Here's another: The geeks, male and female, may be work obsessed, but they are all gorgeous (with a couple of gorgeous girlfriends) and all from Stanford. They are all, as it happens, OS idealists working on a media delivery system as a gift to the world (although they seek venture capital funding for it from Silicon Valley -- huh?). Information wants to be free, and they intend to make it so. NURV, on the other hand, is working on a media delivery system called "Synapse," and it doesn't want to be free. It wants to control the earth, at all costs and by any means. And guess what? It's CEO thinks he's above the law.
Naturally, one of our brilliant young graduates, Milo Hoffman (Ryan Philippe), falling into a Faustian bargain with Gary Winston (Tim Robbins), the reptilian CEO of NURV, gets seduced in about 30 seconds by some fancy hardware and few potato chips into abandoning his friends and helping NURV pillage the noble Open Source ethos. His best friend Teddy (Yee Jee So) is disappointed in him, to say the least. Within minutes, he's also in huge trouble, courtesy of one of the dumbest plot developments in recent film history.
Controlling big media is a powerful lure for all sorts of people these days, but in America, you don't have to murder hordes of programmers to do it. You can just hire them.
Ten minutes into the movie, every upcoming narrative zig and zag is alarmingly clear. NURV's evil tentacles engulf young Hoffman, reaching into every corner of his life, into government, politics, and, of course, most of all into the mass media. The only witty or telling time the movie hits home is when it jabs at Microsoft's alliance with news entities like NBC, Newsweek and The Washington Post, pointing out what journalists seem to miss: this relationship undermines their credibility in coverage of technology-related issues.
Tim Robbins, who plays the creepy, Pringle-addicted, Gates-ish tycoon living in a way-over-the-top Portland (read Seattle) mansion with digital art all over the walls, was phenomenal in The Player, one of the best-ever movies about American culture in general, and about Hollywood valuelessness in particular. Maybe that was why he was chosen for this role. But he's a weak caricature in this movie, completely out of his element as the psychotic, power-obsessed CEO.
Certainly, people working around computers and in tech industries will enjoy the programming stuff, all the self-conscious, painstakingly "realistic" lingo and references -- our heroes start out in a Silicon Valley garage. Does anyone in the software industry start out any other way? ("Our problem is, we don't care about anything that isn't on a hard drive," says one geek ruefully.) Hopefully, even approval-starved geeks won't be bought off this cheaply.
Hiring good consultants isn't nearly enough to save this dog, which steadily degrades into a touch-typing war between Philippe and Robbins, a foolish stand-off that comes just when you think the movie couldn't possibly get any dumber. You really miss Schwarzenneger or Gibson at a time like this.
Maybe that's part of the problem with Antitrust -- the supposed threat of world domination comes down to who can type the fastest. By then, the rest of us are long asleep.
A short preamble:
Antitrust is getting a lot of buzz in the open source community mainly because it employed John "Maddog" Hall and Miguel de Icaza as consultants, and prominently features the GNOME desktop on computers used in the movie. Because of this, I am reviewing the movie on entertainment value as well as technical accuracy.
Entertainment Value: two stars, out of four
The movie is about a brilliant programmer at a small startup (Ryan Phillippe) who is recruited by a software billionaire (Tim Robbins) to work for his software company called Never Underestimate Radical Vision, or simply 'NURV.' Phillippe's character Milo becomes suspicious when Robbins starts handing him code when he hits programming roadblocks, but refuses to tell him where it came from. Then, Milo notices that programmers at competing companies are turning up dead, which gives a whole new meaning to killing the competition.
The rest of the movie turns into standard PG-13 thriller material. The directing is uneven, and the acting varies from mediocre to bad. Phillippe is unconvincing as a computer programmer and looks bored in his role. Robbins, who was so creepy in Arlington Road gives a tepid performance as a megalomaniacal billionaire.
The movies shows promise early on, then just never delivers. It also reeks with the Hollywood-correct corporation bashing. Corporations will do almost anything to "kill" the competition (figuratively), but despite depictions like this one, murder is not a usual business practice in the real world.
Technical Accuracy (Geek Value): three out of four stars)
Although it is lacking in entertainment value, Antitrust is actually pretty technically accurate. The computers have a real operating system on them (GNOME) and programmers have real code on their screens (it looks like some flavor of C). At one point Milo is at a command prompt using the "mount" command to mount drives. The underlying story line of using low-orbiting satellites to deliver content to PCs, cell phones and PDAs is at least plausible.
There are a few minor gaffes, but far fewer than in most Hollywood movies. At one point Phillippe solves a "bottleneck" in a program then proclaims "We are such geeks!" One scene depicts Milo burning a CD in a few seconds. I would sure like to have that drive!
Scott McNeely and Miguel de Icaza do have cameo roles, but you might miss them if you blink. They are briefly shown in video clips on a computer screen. Still the movie is very pro-Open Source. The characters in the movie sound almost like Richard Stallman when they say that "the software belongs to the people."
It's a pleasant surprise to see a Hollywood movie that is technically accurate and shows computer programmers in a (mostly) positive light.
If you go into this movie not expecting a great movie, Antitrust is reasonably entertaining. While the acting and dialog are bad at times, the technical aspects of the film aren't insultingly laughable. I wouldn't put this movie on my must-see list, but it is worth a look at a matinee or discount theater.