Combustible Celluloid
With: Andy Hertzfeld, Joanna Hoffman, Marc Porat, Tony Fadell, Kara Swisher
Written by: Sarah Kerruish, Jonathan Key, Matt Maude, Michael Stern, Ceri Tallett
Directed by: Sarah Kerruish, Matt Maude
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 90
Date: 05/10/2019

General Magic (2019)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Phone Jacked

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

This documentary explores one of Silicon Valley's most essential stories; it's told in a rudimentary and ordinary way, and stretched a little too thin, but ultimately still enlightening and inspiring.

In General Magic, we learn the story of the "most important company ever to come out of Silicon Valley that no one's never heard of." After the launch of the Apple Macintosh computer in the mid-1980s, Apple team members Andy Hertzfeld and Joanna Hoffman joined forces with CEO Marc Porat of the Aspen Institute to start a new company, General Magic.

Their goal was to build an all-in-one personal computing device that could fit in one's pocket. They assembled a team of smart, amazing people and got to work. But word got out, and comparable devices began to appear. By the time the "Magic Link" was released, it was a complete failure. Or, perhaps it was just too far ahead of its time?

Co-directors Sarah Kerruish and Matt Maude start General Magic with a little hyperbole — like a trailer for their own movie — as well as several high-flying drone shots of the Bay Area, before getting going. Talking heads and some archival footage set up the time and place, illustrating General Magic as an early startup, where workers didn't have to wear suits and ties. Porat, speaking in his smooth, assured voice begins to make things sound important.

Happily, the documentary has Tony Fadell, who went on to do great things later on, remembering his early days at General Magic. He was a kid, eager to jump in, and his excitement during his onscreen interview helps underline the excitement that might have been felt at the time. Extensive archival footage by filmmaker David Hoffman also helps to fill out the picture.

While most of the soft interviews frequently mention phrases like "changing the world" or "into the future" (accompanied by more drone footage), one interviewee, journalist and Recode founder Kara Swisher, lays things out clearly: inventing a smartphone in the 1990s was like inventing a television in the 1880s; there was nothing to show on it. They were too early. General Magic could have told the story much more cleanly in a short documentary, dispensing with formula, but it's still worth seeing.

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