Imagine having an idea that will not only make billions but will genuinely change the world forever. Now, what if you had that idea at exactly the wrong time? Nobody gets it, wants it, cares about it. You recede into the shadows to lick your wounds with your tail between your legs, but then suddenly it clicks and you didn’t really fail at all. That’s the story of General Magic, an Apple-related Silicon Valley tech company that sought to connect people in a way that we now take for granted from the moment we wake up to the time we go to bed.
“…worse than being defective, nobody cared.”
In 1989, three rock star Mac programmers, Bill Atkinson, Andy Hertzfeld and Marc Porat, convinced Apple to let them branch into a new entity that would create a handheld personal device that was both computer and phone. They hand-picked their staff and worked around the clock, engineering, designing and constructing something that nobody would be able to live without. The largest global manufacturers of consumer electronics showed interest and the company opened on Wall Street. Soon, Sony’s Magic Link and Motorola’s Envoy, both running the Magic Cap operating system, hit the shelves and everyone sat back to watch the technology world transform overnight. Only it didn’t. Metaphorically, it went as well as the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 on an airplane. Worse than being defective, nobody cared.
Unless you’re a programmer or a huge fan of HBO’s Silicon Valley you might think that watching a bunch of tech people at work is tantamount to watching grass grow, but directors Matt Maude and Sarah Kerruish deliver a fully engrossing rollercoaster ride through multiple perceptions of success, failure, and growth. Aside from a few masterful aerial shots that serve to bridge the chapters together, General Magic follows the standard documentary format of illustrations, archival footage, and talking heads, yet the energy remains strong throughout the film (and kudos to the music supervisor for including Talking Heads in the soundtrack). Despite being slightly awkward geniuses, however, every single person telling the story possesses a personality so enticing you want to see more of them when they talk. It’s like a rock doc where everything catapults into the stratosphere only to crash and burn when the reality of gravity hits.
“…you might think that watching a bunch of tech people work is tantamount to watching grass grow…”
So why watch a movie about a failed company? Easy. The collapse of General Magic brought about the creation of items we all use every day, maybe several times a day. When you take into account that every single person in the film went on to make something extraordinary, it looks a lot less like a failure and more like that step they needed to take to get to this point.
In the grand scheme of things, failure is not only an option but a necessary step in the right direction. Maybe that didn’t work, but why and where does it point? The future is wide open as long as we keep moving forward.
General Magic Directed by Matt Maude and Sarah Kerruish. Starring Tony Fadell, Marc Porat, Andy Hertzfeld, Megan Smith, Joanna Hoffman and Kevin Lynch. General Magic premiered as a Spotlight Documentary at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival.
4.5 out of 5 stars