Silicon Cowboys Movie Review: A Compact Documentary About Compaq

The lively tale of the computer cowboys who changed personal computing.
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It's near impossible to escape technology in this day and age, and with it such an integral part of our functioning as a species enough time has passed that the Hollywood nostalgia train has cast its eye towards showing us a moment when taking your computer home with you was a novel proposition. "Compaq is the story of how David challenges Goliath" and in the wake of all the Steve Jobs films, both documentary and narrative, director Jason Cohen's documentary, Silicon Cowboys, about the formation of the Compaq corporation, looks to make as big a splash as the films about Apple's magnanimous founder did.

In February of 1982, a trio of former Texas Instruments managers created Compaq, a company that would end up taking on IBM, the predominant computer manufacturer at the time, ultimately overtaking them with the creation of the world's first portable computer.

After watching Steve Jobs or Alex Gibney's Jobs documentary, The Man in the Machine, audiences might have technological fatigue, but Silicon Cowboys plays as remarkably lively and fresh - both due to his sprightly directorial hand and for how off-the-beaten path the Compaq founders truly are. Although there's no doubt of the intelligence of founders Rod Canion, Jim Harris and Bill Murto, the three weren't geniuses nor were they money-hungry entrepreneurs. In fact, when they first arrived in Silicon Valley they talked about opening up a Mexican restaurant, an idea they always knew was one of the worst.

Much of Silicon Cowboy's charm comes from the humble and approachable quality of the three main interview subjects. These men never set out to take down IBM. They're so average they sketched the original Compaq portable on the back of a placemat at the House of Pie - summing up the logic behind why they picked that particular location because "you know, get a piece of pie." Even once the money starts rolling in and the group starts investing in fast cars, contact lenses, and other amenities of the nouveau riche, you never lose sight that these are simple, all-American folks. 

The actual creation of the Compaq portability is revolutionary in its timeliness. Where over 90% of Americans today have some type of computer in their pocket, the concept of a computer shaped like a briefcase, complete with handle, takes audiences aback. People in the 1980s were really losing their minds over a computer with a handle? It's laughable on the surface, but that's the company Compaq once was. Unlike their competitors, they weren't interested in the overly technical and neither is the documentary, eschewing jargon in favor of relating to an audience on their terms, presenting to them a straightforward story that's interesting not because of the product, per se, but how a simple tweak made the product revolutionary. 

And it is this quiet revolution that gives us the lasting impact. Cohen and screenwriter Steven Leckart have a hard time subtly inserting how Compaq changed the landscape of tech companies, mashing in introductions to venture capitalism in the Facebook era and AMC's Halt and Catch Fire - a fictionalized series analyzing the creation of Compaq - with all the finesse of a small child trying to put a square peg in a round hole but those scenes are few and far between. Really, their reason for existence is necessary, as Compaq was one of the few companies in the 1980s giving employees perks. Sure, free sodas aren't the laundry and car service the folks working at Google receive, but it was a far cry from the mundane work going on at other companies.

The likable figures at the center, the economical use of storytelling, and the fun with which these people remember a unique time in our technological landscape makes Silicon Cowboys a refreshingly unique look at a story that's usually boiled down to techno-babble. The film gets at the fun of being at the forefront of something that none of the three involved ever thought would make them rich. Compaq's founders might not be household names, but we have them to thank for what we're reading this review on!

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