‘Silicon Cowboys’ Sheds Light On The Cultural Origins Of Silicon Valley (FILM REVIEW)


There’s a line in the opening montage of Silicon Cowboys, a documentary about the early years of the Compaq computer company, that explains why the question is “Mac or PC,” and not “Mac or IBM.” The reason, appropriately setting up the documentary, is Compaq computers, a definitively rag-tag group of friends who started up a business that ended up ushering in the age of Silicon Valley, and all the over-the-top aspects that go along with it.

Silicon Cowboys is built mostly around interviews with Compaq founders Jim Harris, Bill Murto and Rod Canion, who all worked for Texas Instruments in Houston, Texas. After growing restless in their jobs, the three met at a diner to discuss starting their own companys. Inititally entertaining the notion of starting a Mexican restaurant because they all liked Mexican food, they pivot to their wheelhouse, which was, of course, technology.

With the wealth of resources at director Jason Cohen’s disposal, including Compaq’s three founders, along with numerous curators and figureheads from across the tech industry, it manages to paint a detailed portrait of the first tech startup that kicked off the gold rush that still exists today. It’s such a common story now that it’s become the modern equivalent of a fairy tale: There guys who defied everyone’s expectations, including their own, and somehow managing to become a viable, ultimately superior competitor to tech giant IBM, a company that had been around for decades.

Cohen weaves a thorough, contextual narrative throughout, when computers slowly becoming a requirement in office life, all while creeping into the homes of consumers. As a result, Compaq built its technology on intuitiveness and portability, which accelerated their success. While they understood the key factor of designing these machines for the people that were buying them, their policy of free sodas and coffee for their employees (which started back when there were about 10 of them), was just as vital in contributing to the whimsical fantasyland that’s now synonymous with the Silicon Valley of today.

It falters a bit by over-indulging on the nostalgia. Seeing commercials for home computers back in the early 80s starts off as an interesting look at how far the industry has changed in three-and-a-half decades, (Macintosh’s Lisa is a particular highlight), it doesn’t take long before it gets pushed a bit too far. Seeing spliced-together bits of commercials for Pepe’s Mexican Cafe, for example, does nothing to further the story, and seems to only be there to remind viewers that the early 80s was a long time ago.

These cutaways, which are essential to the documentary format, become outright obnoxious when they start inserting clips from HBO’s Silicon Valley, as well as lengthy excerpts from AMC’s Halt And Catch Fire. Granted, the show is a fictionalized re-telling of the quest to reverse-engineer IBM’s technology without putting them in the crosshairs of a lawsuit. Sure, it’s a relevant reference, but repeatedly dropping in a dramatized retelling of the very story that the documentary itself is telling seems a little redundant.

Despite those minor missteps, Silicon Cowboys is not only a marvelous time-capsule of a time gone by, but how three guys from Houston ended up writing the blue-print for the technology-driven world that we live in today.

Silicon Cowboys is now playing in limited release.

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