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Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Citizen Gates?

With all of Microsoft’s recent legal travails, the obvious question arises: When is a new-generation Orson Welles going to make his reputation by writing, directing and producing a roman à clé type quasi-fictional movie biography about Bill Gates? The same way Welles took on William Randolph Hearst in Citizen Kane?

Of course, there have been movies about Bill Gates already. At least one documentary that I know of (Revenge of the Nerds) has chronicled his early technical and business exploits, and A&E’s Biography series has dealt with him as well. And there has been one Hollywood treatment of which I am aware of the world’s wealthiest nerd. Martyn Burke’s 1999 made-for-cable Pirates of Silicon Valley purported to tell the story of Microsoft and Apple Computer, with Bill apparently in the title role. But that story was really about Steve Jobs, with Bill as a mere supporting character. In fact, his character was a disappointingly two-dimensional one, without even the substance of a villain in a James Bond movie or a guest villain on the 1960s Batman series.

The interesting thing about watching the premiere of that flick at the 1999 Seattle International Film Festival was that the audience seemed to be packed (reasonably enough, given Redmond’s proximity to Seattle) with Microsoft employees. And every time that Bill or Steve Ballmer made some comment in the movie about screwing the competition or crushing anybody who stood in their way, the theater erupted in hearty cheers! What the filmmakers may not have realized is that what they intended as despicable villainy was actually tame stuff compared to the motivational talks that Microsoft executives routinely give at company meetings. Some people not familiar with the Microsoft “corporate culture” may find this kind of Patton-esque gung-ho threatening exhortation of the troops to destroy any and all opposition frightening and worrisome. But most of those people apparently work for other software companies or the U.S. Justice Department.

Anyway, the point remains that no film that I am aware of has really tried to get inside Bill’s head. And, while he is an obvious subject for further biographical treatment, he is still a relatively young man and his story has a long ways to go before it can be viewed with any kind of perspective. But we can perceive some rough drafts of a future script in the press reports that accompanied the recent antitrust verdict that found Gates’s company guilty of monopolistic abuse. Most of the coverage I saw was in the British and Irish press, and they had a field day with photos of Bill looking bug-eyed with terror (these were probably actually taken weeks before when he opened his property tax assessment) under screaming headlines about him losing $1.8 million per second. This is obviously how the popular media are choosing to write his story these days. The arrogant businessman, full of hubris, whose greed got the better of him and caused a swift, hard downfall. (Never mind that he still has so much money left that he could, if he so wished, buy every one of the parent companies of all those newspapers and have all the reporters and editors reassigned to janitorial duties—and still have enough left over to buy everyone he knows a nice dinner at Maxim’s in Paris.) This kind of coverage may make the average joe on the street feel good about himself (“Hey, I might be up to my arse in debt that I can’t pay, but thank God I’m not Bill Gates!”), but it certainly gives us no insight as to what name of what childhood possession Gates will be gasping on his deathbed.

The fact is that the definitive Gates biography is still many years away. And while some may think that the very unlikelihood of his story may call for the fantasy talents of a George Lucas or Steven Spielberg, I would put my money on an over-the-top treatment by Quentin Tarantino. If for no other reason, it would be a kick to see if he could manage to work in a scene with Gates, Ballmer, Joel Klein, Janet Reno, Jim Barksdale and Steve Case all drawing guns on each other at the same time, sweat dripping off their foreheads, waiting to see which one is going to shoot first.

-S.L., 20 April 2000

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