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Is 'Antitrust' for real?

Joe Barr reviews the film 'Antitrust' & talks to Torvalds, Hall, & de Icaza about their participation.

(LinuxWorld) -- There's been a lot of buzz on the Net recently about a movie that opened across the country January 12. The villain in MGM's "Antitrust" is based on the man so many love to hate, Bill Gates. Adding to the buzz -- at least among the open source crowd -- is the fact that Linus Torvalds, Jon "maddog" Hall, and Miguel de Icaza were all involved in the making of the movie.

That buzz was more than enough to whet my interest. So when I saw a message on the local LUG mailing list noting that free tickets for a sneak preview could be had at an Austin novelty and graphics company, I immediately drove into town to score one. Each pass was good for two people, so I asked my "three dimensional" to accompany me to the showing.

WARNING: I'll try to write about the film in a way that doesn't spoil it for those who are going to see it after reading this column. But some of my observations or revelations may unintentionally detract from your viewing pleasure. If you're concerned about that, bookmark this page and come back to it after seeing the film. If, on the other hand, you want to know more, visit the movie's Website (see Resources for a link), but be aware that it is not a Linux-friendly site and you may not be able to see all of it.

At the movies

The freebie ticket advised that we should arrive at least half an hour before the show started to be sure of getting a seat. We showed up an hour early and found about a hundred people already waiting in line. From brief conversations, I got the feeling that many of them were simply moviegoers, not geeks. They didn't know, for example, that the evil character of Gary Winston was a caricature of Bill Gates. But we weren't the only geeks there; we joined a group from the LUG sitting dead center and about five rows from the front.

The basic story line is the battle between good and evil. Gary Winston's company (NURV, Never Underestimate Radical Vision) is in a "winner take all" race to achieve global convergence for the delivery of video, sound, and text over all kinds of electronic devices. The product NURV is developing to achieve that convergence is called Synapse, which seems to be some weird science held together by Java.

The forces of evil -- Winston and NURV -- clearly reflect the core values of Bill Gates and Microsoft, as the film contains, for example, numerous references to the government's antitrust case against Microsoft. Winston is shown before a Senate committee mouthing the same sort of absurd denials of monopoly power that Gates did a couple of years ago. The Microsoft philosophy of winning at any cost, and to hell with restrictive laws, ethics, or mores, was portrayed with remarkable candor and accuracy. From Winston's home (complete with digital art) to the NURV campus, you're never left in doubt as to whom the character is based on.

When Winston shows off the digital art, which reacts to whomever is in the room by displaying their favorite pieces, another character asks, "Doesn't Bill Gates have something like that?" Winston replies, "Bill Gates? Who is that?" Nudge, nudge, wink, wink.

Our hero is Milo, a software genius recruited right out of college. Instead of following his plan to develop an open source media delivery system with his best friend Teddy, Milo gives in to the siren songs of money, sex, and power. He accepts a direct offer from Winston and goes to work for NURV on the Synapse project.

There are several nods to Hewlett-Packard in the film. Milo and Teddy open their start-up in a garage, for example. There are 42 days left until deadline when Milo joins the project. Whether that is a reference to Douglas Adams and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy I'll leave to others. But I will share this insight with my deep-thinking dweeb brothers and sisters: on the most fundamental level, all deadlines are evil.

Why does Milo go to work for the evil empire and forgo his own ambitions? As I mentioned before, the answers are money, sex, and power. And herein I have a minor quibble with "Antitrust." You wouldn't know it if you based your judgment on the characters in the film, but not all females are evil.

The names of Linus Torvalds, Jon "maddog" Hall, and Miguel de Icaza appear in the credits following the film. In fact, credit is given to the entire "Open Source Community." I was curious about the role each of the Linux luminaries had in the making of the film, so I asked them. Linus told me that he vaguely recalls MGM asking him for permission to use the penguin (he was busy at the time), but that he did not review the scripts or do any consulting on the film.

"maddog" Hall said that he been offered a cameo role in the film, but he was unable to accept due to a scheduling conflict. He did spend some time helping the movie's producers to understand Linux and open source a little more fully, but his assistance came "after the fact." He told me that he would encourage the community to "be kind to the MGM folks. These people are telling a story, not teaching a class on OS design."

My opinion -- which is shared by Doc Shipley, one of our LUG's most knowledgeable geeks -- is that the producers did a very good job of getting the technology right. It's true that the hacking seen in the film came a little too easily, even for a genius. And that instant comprehension of source code after a mere glance was a bit much. There were more than a couple of scenes where Winston and Milo would peer at source code for a second or two, then nod their heads in agreement about how great the "structure" was simply because it appeared to be neatly coded and correctly indented. But all in all, the movie delivers a good mixture of geek and chic. Milo is shown using "1984" as a password for encrypted files, for example.

You have to pay close attention to catch Miguel's appearance in the film. It comes when our hero Milo views a video archive about his friend Teddy. Watch carefully after you see a photo of Scott McNealy presenting an award to Teddy, because Miguel appears just seconds later. Miguel told me he was in Vancouver only long enough to shoot his "microscene" and then attend the wrap-up party for the film. I love the irony of de Icaza having a part in the movie. In one scene, Winston mimics Gates's paranoia of "some kid out there coding in a garage" who can wrest the market away from Microsoft. Miguel is that kid. He is Bill Gates's worst nightmare.

"Antitrust" is fast-paced, exciting, and easy on the brain. It should become a cult flick for the geek community instantaneously. How well the general populace receives the movie won't be known until about the time this column appears, after the film's first weekend at the box office.

I admit to being a little surprised at how close the character of Winston and his firm come to being true-to-life representations of Gates and Microsoft. It's difficult at times to remember that the people and events are fictional. The theft of Kerberos is not much different than the thefts of code portrayed in the movie, give or take a murder or two.

There is a lot more to say about "Antitrust," but I am trying hard not to reveal too much. I hope you all will join me in the forum to discuss the movie once you've seen it. We can get into the specifics there. Until then, just remember, "The answer is not in the box, it's in the band."

More Stories By Joe Barr

Joe Barr is a freelance journalist covering Linux, open source and network security. His 'Version Control' column has been a regular feature of Linux.SYS-CON.com since its inception. As far as we know, he is the only living journalist whose works have appeared both in phrack, the legendary underground zine, and IBM Personal Systems Magazine.

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