Tech Bytes – Tid Bits in Tech News: Wag the Nerd: A Production that Begat a Production

It was by coincidence that MGM’s “Antitrust” debuted the same day the Justice Department and 19 states’ attorneys general continued their own antitrust production against Microsoft. Both of Friday’s offerings depicted monopoly power and unchecked aggression. Unfortunately, both the government’s floundering case and MGM’s box-office dud are filled with so much inanity that neither can be taken seriously.

Both productions use the dramatic techniques of simplification and exaggeration to engage their respective audience. In the government’s reply brief presented to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, the case against Microsoft is once again boiled down into simple terms: Microsoft used its monopoly power to crush rivals. The government then uses hyperbole—a narrow market definition, a vast overestimation of Microsoft’s success, and sinister labels for rudimentary business practices—to explain precisely how Microsoft was able to do such a thing.

The brain trust behind “Antitrust” seemed to think that contentions of “exclusionary conduct” or “illegal monopoly maintenance” would not exactly lead people to the theatres in droves. In its place, “Antitrust” offers brutality and larceny. By imputing life-or-death seriousness to software development, the film makes new market entrants appear to be in a similar position to those communists who opposed Stalin.

Both productions also rely on depictions of a menacing software-engineer-turned chairman to buttress the dramatic effect. The character in “Antitrust,” played by Tim Robbins, is a megalomaniac whose behavior is as predatory as his company’s business practices. But it is Robbins’s calm, soft-toned nature that informs the audience that the character is, in fact, psychotic.

The villain in the government’s production is not a stone-cold sociopath, but rather a ruthless conqueror. It would seem that portraying Microsoft’s Chairman as Genghis Khan would elicit more laughter than loathing, but it worked quite well at the trial. In a recent interview, Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson compared Bill Gates to Napoleon. He also equated Microsoft’s claims of innocence to “the protestations of gangland killers.”

Such incendiary comments from a man entrusted to act as an independent arbiter of justice casts a shadow on the judge’s impartiality and the rationale for his verdict. By focusing so much of his post-trial attention on Gates’ personality and position in the world, Judge Jackson seems to fancy an historic role for himself: perhaps one similar to Wellington at the battle of Waterloo.

If Gates were indeed Napoleon, a more appropriate historical equivalent for Jackson would be the Russian winter. Just as the dreadful cold and snow stopped Napoleon’s continental advance, Jackson’s officious break-up plan would stop innovation dead in its tracks. The proposed break-up and subsequent regulatory apparatus would blanket the entire software industry with a suffocating layer of frost.

Of course, there is no Judge Jackson-character anywhere to be found in “Antitrust.” Perhaps an antagonistic Paul Sorvino, or an unsympathetic Carol O’Connor would have made the script too complex and required too much thought from the audience to merit consideration. A character more concerned with settling personal scores than fairly administering justice would be too enigmatic to a film that intends to make such a clear ideological statement.

The benefits the software company provides to consumers are also conspicuously absent in “Antitrust.” Off screen, Judge Jackson agreed that Microsoft’s actions led to “improved products, increased distribution and lower prices.” Yet, the marketing crusade continues apace by the Department of Justice because consumer benefits cannot be tolerated if the company in question has a certain market share. “Antitrust” prefers to ignore such issues.

A quick survey of all the issues “Antitrust” ignores makes it is easy to see why patrons stayed away: the movie’s trite plotline pales in comparison to the real-life tragedy of U.S. v. Microsoft Corp. Why not a movie about a gifted software engineer who builds a successful company and helps to create an industry, but is then brought down by a vengeful judge and paradoxical law? Why weave murderous thugs and commonplace thieves into the script instead of addressing the real charges in the biggest antitrust case in a generation?

Producers of the movie would argue that they had no intention of making a pseudo-documentary, but that could be the problem. Given “Antitrust’s” abysmal box office performance—the movie barely grossed over $5 million and finished out of the top 10 on its opening weekend—perhaps MGM and director Peter Howit would have been better served if their art imitated life.

The American people would have also benefited from a realistic appraisal of antitrust activism instead if a diatribe against corporate America. To paraphrase Michael Wood, movies send messages even if there are only a handful of people in the theater to receive them.

This article was also published in the Washington Times on March 11, 2001.