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The idea of a movie focused on antitrust might appear odd to anyone with more than a passing familiarity with the subject. Long known as a dry, serious, and intellectually rigorous legal field, and with about as much sex appeal as the tax code, antitrust would hardly seem to be a candidate for a breathless Hollywood thriller designed to draw large audiences to the cineplexes of America. Nonetheless, undoubtedly thanks in no small part to recent headline-grabbing antitrust cases and a seemingly unending wave of corporate mega-mergers, a film with the unlikely title “Antitrust” has recently been released. A short description of the movie’s villain, Gary Winston, makes clear just how much “Antitrust” is a product of its times. Winston, played by Tim Robbins, is the hard-charging billionaire CEO of a computer software company. A computer nerd grown into middle age, he commands a powerful company located on a beautiful campus setting in the Pacific Northwest. He lives in a spectacular modern house next to a lake, a house complete with every technological innovation, down to the electronically generated pictures hanging on the wall that change to suit the preferences of the room’s occupant. A ruthless business competitor, Winston now finds himself under siege and his company being investigated by the Justice Department for monopolistic tactics. He often defends himself by arguing that “any kid with a good idea working in a garage can put us out of business.” Sound familiar? Winston’s company, NURV (Never Underestimate Radical Vision), is soon to launch a revolutionary new product, Synapse. Synapse is software that will enable “digital convergence,” the ability for all types of electronic devices — television, computers, cell phones, radios, etc. — to communicate through a network of dozens of Earth-orbiting satellites being launched by NURV. But NURV’s software is falling seriously behind schedule. Winston learns of a recently graduated software genius, Milo Hoffman (Ryan Phillippe), who is about to start his own software company with a classmate in — where else? — his garage. Confident that Milo has the brains and talent to perfect Synapse, Winston works his oily charm to seduce the naive and star-struck Milo to join NURV. Encouraged by his girlfriend, Alice (Claire Forlani), Milo abandons his partner and college buddy Teddy Chin (Yee Jee Tso), and soon moves north, reports to his cubicle at the heavily guarded NURV campus, and begins writing software for NURV late into the night under the personal attention of Winston himself. With an expensive company-paid car, stylish condo, beautiful girlfriend, and personal sponsorship of the genius CEO Winston himself, Milo seems to have scored the perfect twenty-something computer geek life. But things fast turn sour in Milo’s code-writing paradise. Winston’s conduct grows increasingly suspicious as he brings Milo newly written software code to work on, but refuses to tell Milo how he obtained it. Winston grows increasingly testy and short-tempered as Synapse’s launch date draws ever closer. After a couple of competing computer software geniuses suddenly suffer untimely deaths, Milo begins to wonder if there isn’t, in fact, something to all those federal investigations, and he decides to try to find out for himself. In “Antitrust,” director Peter Howitt (best known for his alternative futures drama “Sliding Doors”) and screenwriter Howard Franklin have created a film with lofty aspirations, a movie whose subject is a cut above the normal Hollywood thriller. The movie attempts to explore serious questions about the future of our technology and the growth of corporate power. One of the more telling scenes in “Antitrust” comes when our hero Milo discovers the crucial facts that, if exposed, will put an end to the conspiracy. He decides to give the story to the network news shows, but these plans are thwarted when he discovers that the owners of all the major television networks, and the largest Internet service provider as well, each have joint venture deals with NURV. This scene is a vivid fictional illustration of the warnings made by those critical of what they see as an emerging media-communications keiretsu made possible by media mergers and cross-ownerships. In the dystopian tradition of George Orwell’s “1984,” “Antitrust” asks the question of whether the much-touted future world of digital convergence — in which all our communications devices will be united into one interchangeable feed capable of streaming audio (CDs, radio), video (movies, TV), books, and data (Internet Web sites) on demand — is really so desirable after all. Such a message is not surprising, considering the identity of some of the movie’s consultants. Listed in the film’s credits as a consultant is Linus Torvalds, the Finnish creator of Linux software and a leader in the open-source software movement, which advocates free access to the source codes for computer operating systems. Even Scott McNealy of Sun Microsystems makes a cameo appearance. Unfortunately, the movie’s attempt to meld its rather weighty subject matter with the demands of a fast-paced thriller is not always successful. The drama of writing new computer software does not translate well to the movie screen. The story is marred by several major implausibilities: surely, Milo could find some media outlet not in partnership with NURV. Milo abandons all efforts to seek the aid of law enforcement after he discovers one federal agent is corrupt — surely, he could have found another. Milo’s uncovering of the facts — conveniently found on the computer files at NURV — is all too easy. Despite these plot defects, the film is generally well acted. Tim Robbins’ portrayal of the devious and megalomaniacal Winston is especially convincing. Whatever the film’s failings, the makers of “Antitrust” are to be commended for raising on film the challenging issues of the implications of our new computer and communications technologies, and who controls these technologies. Perhaps the filmmakers are correct — maybe antitrust is ready for the big screen after all. Seth Bloom is an attorney on the staff of the Senate Antitrust Subcommittee. The views expressed herein are solely those of the author.

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