Acclaimed Documentary “Silicon Cowboys,” About The Early Days Of Personal Computers, Opens Theatrically Today To Glowing Reviews

Silicon Cowboys
September 16, 2016 — The acclaimed documentary Silicon Cowboys opens today.

The film chronicles a time when most people did not have personal computers — and when a portable computer was the size of a medium-sized suitcase. During those early days, there was one computer giant — IBM — and every other computer company was a pipsqueak. 

But three men, Rod Canion, Bill Murto and Jim Harris, decided to take on the giant, and nearly succeeded in besting it. Their company, Compaq Computers, came up with two innovations that shook up the computing world.

First, they made their computer more portable with a single, unexpected innovation — they put a handle on the case. 

They also made a computer that successfully ran IBM’s software — an accomplishment IBM had difficulty mastering.

Variety says of the movie, “Silicon Cowboys” offers a vivid and evocative portrait of an era when innovators might rough-sketch their grand plans for PCs of the back of restaurant placemats, then rely on bank loans, not venture capitalists, to turn dreams into reality. It tells a fascinating story — complete with cautionary references to the ways that corporate success can fray family ties, and visionaries often are superseded by bean counters. Cohen skillfully uses Ian Hultquist’s pulsating electronic musical score to sustain narrative momentum, so that “Silicon Cowboys” winds up seeming even shorter than its 76-minute running time.”

The L.A. Times adds “Who would have thought that a computer prototype sketched on the back of a Houston House of Pies place mat would prove to be a thorn in the side of IBM for the better part of the 1980s? That’s just one of the morsels served up in Jason Cohen’s engaging “Silicon Cowboys,” a zippy, compact history of the rise and rise of Compaq Computer Corp.

Back in 1982, former Texas Instruments senior managers Rod Canion, Jim Harris and Bill Murto had a concept for building a better mousetrap that involved a portable “suitcase computer” capable of running the same software and peripherals as a Big Blue PC. Technically speaking, the Compaq Portable, with a weight of 27 pounds, was considered less a portable than a “luggable,” but it nevertheless possessed a certain coolness factor that caught fire, and not in a Samsung Galaxy Note 7 way.

In short order, company CEO Canion shed his old wire rims and Wal-Mart sports jackets for a sleeker corporate style, while signing John Cleese for a series of memorable commercials.

Director Cohen, whose “Facing Fear” was among the 2014 Oscar nominees for documentary short, lends this classic David versus Goliath story a playfully retro feel complete with old TV clips that look like they were recorded on VHS and a beep ’n’ blip-heavy electronic score by Ian Hultquist that could have easily come from a vintage Nintendo game.”

The Village Voice:  “To all the people upset by a lack of headphone jacks in their phones today, a debate over attaching a handle on a computer carry case will seem quaint, and possibly hilarious. That’s OK; director Jason Cohen (the Oscar-nominated shortFacing Fear) wants his documentary history of Compaq computers to be fun — and indeed, compared to the overly earnest clips of Halt and Catch Fire inserted for contrast, the real slow-talking Texans in the tale are a hoot.

In the style of a VH1 Behind the Music episode, here Compaq’s quest to be number one on the computer charts follows a familiar arc: A regular bunch of guys gets together, they do what they love, one has a great idea, they rocket up the charts…but will personal problems behind the scenes derail everything? Well, we mostly know how it ended, and the movie admits it up front: Where we used to say “IBM compatible,” we now just say “PC,” because IBM was knocked out of the PC business by these fellas.”

But the joy here is in the telling, and these former–Texas Instruments–employees-made-good are a likable bunch, especially in their particularly Texan way of recalling every major milestone in terms of what they were eating or drinking at the time (beer, pie, and bloody marys are more relevant than you’d have guessed).

Best of all, though, are all the vintage ads and TV spots. IBM’s idea of hip was a Charlie Chaplin impersonator, and Compaq countered with John Cleese, realizing nerds would appreciate him the most.”

The New York Times: “You won’t walk away with a degree in business or psychology after watching“Silicon Cowboys.” But this documentary leaves you with a curious feeling that you’ve earned college credit in both, and gotten a few laughs as well.

The film, a fast-moving account of the start-up and rise of Compaq Computer, grounds itself in people as well as technology, and that makes the lessons especially engaging. Founded in the early 1980s by Rod Canion, Jim Harris and Bill Murto, the plucky company embraced some brash ideas — compatibility, portable personal computers — at an extraordinarily opportune time. …

Yet on its own, “Silicon Cowboys” prizes the human drama behind business events, much as in “The Social Network” or “Steve Jobs.” Those films, too, pretended that technology was the star. But they knew that people were the real story.”

Check here for theaters and times.

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