In a world where everyone knows the names David and Goliath, nobody wants to be the Goliath. After all, the giant philistine warrior that fell to David’s skillful sling has caught more than his fair share of posthumous flack, meeting the same ironic end again and again, if only by the pens of hacks in need of a standardized metaphor—even when the combatants described are far more closely matched than the author would have you believe.
That’s the cliché literally at the lips of many of the talking heads tapped to appear in Silicon Cowboys, which traces the founders of the Houston computer company Compaq as they rise from prairie dogs to Wall Street schmoozers, all while directly competing against the big boys of Silicon Valley. By the short feature’s end, however, one might actually feel inclined to buy into these mythic parallels thanks to the interviewees’ radical honesty and the unusually entertaining hand guiding the presentation of these events.
The tale is undoubtedly familiar: three friends/co-workers (Jim Harris, Bill Murto, and Rod Canion) on the brink of finishing their last lap on the corporate treadmill at a massive company decide to forgo the sure money of middle management to pursue their own company. Despite uncertain beginnings (in one of the film’s most revealing moments, Canion recalls a brief impulse to open a Mexican restaurant rather than a tech firm), the trio manages to strike paydirt by producing a 28-pound portable “clone” of an IBM PC, then the leader of the industry, which stokes the ire of the massive mega corporation and eventually sets off a virtual war between the two companies.
Silicon Cowboys follows much of the form of the prolific Alex Gibney’s documentaries, especially in structure. At times, it feels as though the three central figures are reading their Wikipedia pages to you, and no attempt is made to concoct some grand revelation to justify the entire enterprise’s existence. Instead, director Jason Cohen relies on the well-worn tools of the documentarians’ trade—such as reenactments, stock footage, and voiceover—to grant a fairly straightforward telling of a fairly straightforward story a degree of dramatic flair. And while it’s no secret that most documentaries are often only as compelling as the real-life events they portray, it’s fair to say that Cohen’s slick aesthetics manage to elevate Silicon Cowboys beyond fellow “info dumps” of this caliber. One might even forgive its chintzy interstitial titles, which are rendered in the same ridiculous green terminal text that seemingly every film about technology has featured since 1989.
The sheer volume of primary sources—worn photos, scan-lined video, and actual business forms—on display here is simply staggering. When bad-guy Goliath IBM releases a new computer with a chip that nobody has seen before, we see photo after photo of Compaq personnel ripping out the circuit boards of their competitor’s machine the same day, trying to figure out what makes the magic happen. When CEO Canion talks about IBM’s marketing team being behind the times, we’re convinced of their ineptitude by footage of a 60-second spot, which features a Charlie Chaplin lookalike futzing around in a pie factory. Indeed, the emphasis on television and magazine ads for computers of the era is an indelible part of the film’s goofy charm; each clip is a time capsule in itself, and does much to establish the tenor of the era.
As the dollars rain from the sky and the three compatriots all leave the company for various reasons, the timeline skips forward 10 years and rattles to an abrupt close; in 2002, staggered by the dot-com bubble, Compaq merged with HP, only to be marketed as their B-level brand and unceremoniously jettisoned a decade later. Such an ending makes clear why Silicon Cowboys is presented as the story of the people behind Compaq, and not the company itself. A David that becomes Goliath is all well and good, provided it behaves well. But nobody respects a Goliath that’s gutted by its fellow philistine.