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By Joe Bendel. They made the space program and the personal computer possible. They were not just brilliant scientists. They were the original venture capitalists. The far-reaching scientific and economic revolutions initiated by Robert Noyce and his colleagues are explored in The American Experience’s first-rate Silicon Valley, which airs on most PBS stations this Tuesday.

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A bright student at Grinnel College, Noyce happened to get an early look at two of Bell Labs’ first ever transistors, through his professor, Grant Gale. He would remain a foremost expert on the devices and their successors from that point forward. After an unrewarding East Coast corporate stint, Noyce joined soon to be Nobel Lauriat William Shockley’s semiconductor laboratory, in what was then nowheresville California. That was a somewhat gutsy move at the time, but Noyce was just getting started.

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Fed up with Shockley’s erratic behavior and dubious strategic decision-making, Noyce and the rest of the so-called “Traitorous Eight” set out on their own, establishing Fairchild Semiconductor with the backing of Sherman Fairchild’s family of companies. Noyce was the last to join the insurgency, but the one most needed for Fairchild Semiconductors to make a go of it. He understood the science, but he also had persuasive powers the others lacked. Opting to develop a silicon-based semiconductor (a model Shockley had explicitly rejected), Fairchild scored some crucial government contracts right out of the gate. Yet Noyce would eventually pick up and start over once more. Ever heard of a company called Intel?

From "Silicon Valley."

Co-written, co-produced, and directed by Randall MacLowry, Silicon Valley does two things unusually well. It nicely explains the enormous technological benefits offered by transistors, semiconductors, microchips, and microprocessors, in terms accessible for viewers not particularly savvy about the insides of their computers. It also gives Noyce and his comrades full credit for their game-changing entrepreneurship. MacLowry clearly establishes the substantial risks Noyce took, as well as the considerable reward he reaped. As a result, viewers might just find themselves feeling a vicarious giddiness for the up-start success of Noyce’s start-ups. That is a powerful response for a television documentary to inspire, but Silicon Valley is unquestionably the best of the last three seasons for American Experience, at least.

Many Fairchild and Intel alumni share their memories of Noyce and the formative years of Silicon Valley, including Andy Grove and surviving members of the infamous eight, Jay Last and Gordon Moore. MacLowry also incorporates a wealth of archival photos that vividly remind us of what the future used to look like in years past. The film is also a bittersweet reminder that California used to be synonymous with opportunity and new beginnings, rather than bankruptcy and stagnation. As a documentarian, MacLowery is rather diplomatic, completely ignoring Shockley’s later controversial championing of eugenics, simply depicting him as a miserable boss and incompetent businessman instead. Still, it is a reasonable call, considering how such hot button topics are apt to distract public television viewers.

It becomes obvious watching Silicon Valley what a great dramatic feature this story could become in the right hands. Dominic West would be a decent likeness for Noyce. However, in a world where Ashton Kutcher is cast as Steve Jobs, you have wonder whom Hollywood might come up with. Taylor Lautner, perhaps? At least MacLowry did right by the band of pioneers who made Silicon Valley what it is today. Highly recommended as a work of scientific, economic, and cultural history, Silicon Valley premieres this coming Tuesday (2/5) on most PBS outlets nationwide.

LFM GRADE: A

Posted on February 4th, 2012 at 9:59am.

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By Joe Bendel. H-Town is way different from the Ewings’ Dallas, but there is still a lot of energy money there. That is indirectly why German corporate headhunter Clemens Trunschka is visiting. He is supposed to make a confidential offer on behalf of a client to a prominent Texas petroleum CEO without alerting his current firm. This turns out to be easier said than done in Bastian Günther’s Houston (clip here), which screened as part of the World Dramatic Competition at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Trunschka drinks too much, straining his relationship with his wife Christine. Perhaps sensing trouble at home, his son has been acting out at school. It is a problem his father is not inclined to face. In a way, the assignment to recruit Steve Ringer comes at an opportune time, getting Trunschka out of the house for a while. After missing Ringer at an exclusive European energy conference, Trunschka must follow him to H-Town. However, the combination of jet lag, liquor, and the blinding Texas sun seem to have a disorienting effect on the headhunter.

Since Ringer’s gatekeepers keep him locked up tighter than Rapunzel, Trunschka will have to get creative to reach him. The pressure is mounting, which has a further destabilizing effect on the German. However, a fellow guest in his hotel seems eager to help. Robert Wagner, the actor’s namesake as he is quick to point out, seems to be the perfect caricature of the loud backslapping American. In fact, he is clearly supposed to make viewers suspicious—about Trunschka.

From "Houston."

While there is plenty to make viewers wonder about the firmness of the German protagonist’s grip on things, Günther’s approach is tightly restrained, dry even. Trunschka’s dark night of the soul is all about brooding rather than knock-down drag-out binge drama. Ulrich Tukur, best known for The Lives of Others and John Rabe is perfectly suited for the tightly wound, quietly cracking-up Trunschka. He can do a slow burn better than just about anyone. Likewise, Garret Dillahunt nicely hints at an unsettling undercurrent beneath Wagner’s aggressively good humor.

Cinematographer Michael Kotschi makes the most of Houston’s dazzling sunlight and the reflections off its glass and steel towers, creating a real sense of an urban wonderland. While strikingly composed, the entire film is too fixated on shiny surfaces, never really getting to the characters root cores. Nonetheless, some commentators will surely embrace the film as another critique of the capitalist system, even though it depicts a rather singular crisis—a self-destructive alcoholic’s inability to convey a lucrative job offer to a highly successful executive.

Houston looks great, but mostly offers empty calories, despite the quality of Tukur’s work. Still, it might be interesting to some East and West Coasters as a window into Europe’s perspective on the Texas state of reality. As a result, Houston is likely to get further festival play, particularly given the two well known German and American principle cast-members, following its world premiere at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.

LFM GRADE: C+

Posted on February 4th, 2012 at 9:58am.

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